We are a divided nation. We are divided over politics, religion, race, and even our preferred computer brands (PC all the way!), to name just a few. Some have said we are the divided states of America. Divided between blue and red states, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, Black and White, documented and undocumented, Fox News and MSNBC.
The church is also divided. We have over 38, 000 different Christian denominations, many of which are insisting their way of looking at things is THE right way. Instead of giving the world a vision of unity, we are simply mimicking the division and brokenness of the world around us.
When the religious leaders accused Jesus of casting out demons with the power of demons (they literally demonized Jesus), he said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” When we demonize our own brothers and sisters with labels of conservative and liberal, it not only makes us look foolish, it destroys the very foundation of the faith we profess to uphold.
Is there hope for unity?
I believe there is hope, but we have to move beyond labels of conservative and liberal. The labels don’t make sense anymore and they are manipulated by political and economic interests to our own detriment. Our faith is used to get politicians elected (whether or not their policies are Christ-like) and make corporations lots of money (I saw Duck Dynasty T-shirts in Christian bookstores). One of the consequences is that we allow political affiliations to determine our theological views. Instead of letting the Bible challenge and shape our political and economic views, we do the very opposite, and interpret Scripture based on our politics. When theology and politics become inseparable (whether conservative or liberal) we lose our prophetic voice. The gospel does not fit into either conservative or liberal labels without compromise.
When the labels don’t fit
I have a hard time fitting myself within the conservative and liberal spectrum. I grew up in a Wesleyan holiness tradition and attended a right-leaning evangelical college and seminary. Since being in Chicago for the last decade, God has really opened my eyes to God’s heart for justice and the racial, economic, and political injustices that exist in our urban cities. I’ve attended some of the more liberal seminaries in Chicago to seek balance in my own head and heart around what our role as Christians is in engaging the social issues of our time. My liberal friends think I’m conservative because of my evangelical style and my emphasis on the Bible, and my conservative friends think I’m liberal because I’m always talking about social issues and justice. I can’t seem to figure out if I’m a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative.
My experience with conservative and liberal Christians is showing me that each side has something to offer us. The labels keep us from hearing each other and learning from one another. We are also missing out on important truths. When we really look at the Bible beyond the labels, we see the Bible emphasizes both personal righteousness (conservative values) and social justice (liberal values), freedom (conservative political ideology) and equality (liberal political ideology), Jesus (conservative theology) and justice (liberal theology)!
By rejecting one side, we end up with a limited view of God, theology, politics, and culture.
The way forward
In Mission Year, the organization I lead, we are intentionally trans-denominational. We call young adults from all across the political and theological spectrum to live and work together. We know we aren’t going to agree on every political and theological issue and that’s ok. Jesus never said, “agree with one another, ” he said, “love one another!” We emphasize what we can agree on: loving God and loving people. This is often the first time people have had a chance to live with, learn from, and listen to Christians from different denominations and theological persuasions. Their stereotypes fall apart and they begin to see a fuller picture of who God is and grow appreciation for the diversity within the body of Christ.
Getting beyond liberal and conservative doesn’t mean we agree on everything, it means we are able to listen to each other and accept the unique gifts and perspectives we all bring. We stop closing ourselves off from those who look, act, or believe differently than we do and start finding common ground.
If we want unity in the church, we will have to transcend the liberal and conservative deadlock.
Here are some things we all can do to move beyond the conservative and liberal divide:
- Stop demonizing those we disagree with. We need to unplug from the political shows that only fuel our fears, animosity, and suspicion of each other.
- We need to welcome dialogue and honest conversation. We need to create spaces where we can tell our stories without judgment and really listen to each other.
- Learn to laugh at our pettiness. There’s so much more that unites us than what divides us.
- Stay at the table even when it’s uncomfortable.
- Believe the best in each other. Realize we are all trying to have a faithful response to what we believe.
- Look for truth and God in our opponents and their views.
- Work together. Come together on the things we can agree on to bring about change in our communities (fighting poverty, ending violence against women, educating children, glorifying Christ by loving one another).
- Stop selling out to political parties. We cannot sell our votes or faith for political power.
- Be prophetic and not partisan. Don’t’ let anyone off the hook, challenge both conservatives and liberals.
- Be more humble. Acknowledge the limitations of our viewpoints, the finiteness of our opinions, and the brokenness of our institutions. As Paul said, we all see through glass dimly.”
- Think of each other as brothers and sisters rather than conservative and liberal.
- Start dreaming about what we can do when we move beyond liberal and conservative.
Christ prayed in John 17 that the community of Christian believers would be one. He said this unity would be a powerful witness to the world. I would love to see the church setting the example of unity for our divided world.