An Untimely Response

Several months ago a visitor to LiberalEvangelical.org posted the following comment. I intended to respond, but the holidays got in the way and then world events interfered, and before I knew it, almost one third of a year had passed. Well, I think it’s time.

On October 7, 2010 a visitor wrote:
“So what makes you evangelical? Do you believe in hell? If so then you're a horrible, heartless person. Do you believe the Bible is the literal word of God? Including the homophobic parts? If so, then you must be either very conflicted or very disingenuous. And if you don't believe these things, then what makes you evangelical? Is it just a word that you enjoy saying?”

The questions themselves are not difficult to answer. In order I’d say the following.

I’m an evangelical because I believe in the good news of Jesus Christ.

No.

No.

No.

I’m an evangelical because I believe in the good new of Jesus Christ and do not think that the Gospel is the same thing as the literal text of scripture.

Yes, I enjoy saying the word for two reasons. First, it is true. Second, it shatters expectations. Liberal and Evangelical have contradicting connotations in the culture wars, but we put them together to emphasize that the ideas themselves are not contradictory when we get past stereotypes and get down to the roots.

Now that I’ve given honest answers, let’s get to the more important issue. There is some obvious pain behind these questions, pain that we all need to think about addressing. Let’s meet that pain head on.

Scripture can really hurt…especially if you were raised to treasure and revere it only to have it thrown back in your face and used as a weapon against you.

Both sides in the culture wars profit from clear delineations: LIBERAL OR EVANGELICAL, ATHEIST OR CONSERVATIVE.

But these delineations are usually prescriptive not descriptive, which is a fancy way of saying that labeling the sides creates the conflict and forces folks to choose an identity…even when that identity does not represent who they are or what they believe. In a two-dimensional conflict, three-dimensional people are unwelcome!

The deepest wounds are often those inflicted by those we most love and trust, so many ex-evangelicals feel the need to repudiate their entire heritage as a way of preserving their sanity and protecting themselves from further emotional and sometimes literal wounds.

I don’t know the person that posted this comment, so I cannot honestly say that I know the pain that resides behind these words, but I can imagine. I imagine a young person, late teens, early twenties, who grew up among Evangelicals. S/he knew the Bible and treasured it, but also knew that s/he didn’t fit neatly into the Evangelical mold. At some point s/he came to realize that s/he might be gay or at least was open to having gay friends, but when s/he looked for allies or support among Evangelical family and friends, s/he found only hostility and a rigidity couched in the language of “biblical values.” Where was the love? Where was the community? Where was the kindness? Abandoned by his/her church, s/he felt alienated from the Bible and Jesus at the same time. And so s/he made the only decision that felt honest, the only decision that didn’t feel like a capitulation to small-mindedness. S/he gave up on church and left behind the Bible and the term “evangelical.” But of course, none of us can ever entirely escape our past. So the word still stings.

S/he took refuge in a new liberal, gay-friendly, progressive world, a world that seemed to be devoid of religious commitments and biblical language. But at least here s/he felt safe! At least here no one threatened hell fire in the name of love. And then, s/he encounters something uncomfortable on the internet: LiberalEvangelical.org. And this feels threatening. Perhaps s/he was wrong to feel safe. Maybe her new world is not completely free of Evangelicals or biblical language. Maybe the impenetrable boundary between Evangelicals and Liberals—a boundary that s/he has come to depend on for a sense of safety—is not impenetrable after all.

So yes, I can imagine that learning of the existence of Liberals who are also Evangelicals may be frightening. Given the horrors that have been committed in the name of Conservative Christianity, this fear is more than understandable. So let’s be honest.  Liberal Evangelicals, in claiming both of these titles, we bear the burden of proof.

The key line of the visitor’s comment is “you must be either very conflicted or very disingenuous.” If we are honestly to say “no,” if we are to be Liberal Evangelicals in more than just name, then we must show ourselves to be genuine. We must demonstrate to the world through our inclusive actions that we are doing more than splicing terms when we refer to ourselves as Liberal Evangelicals, that we are not putting on the sheep’s clothing of “Liberalism” only to creep in among the Liberal flock and act like wolves. My hunch, and it’s only a hunch, is that our October visitor sees in LiberalEvangelical.org only a new strategy advanced by Conservative Christian in order to invade his or her safely Liberal space and launch a sneak attack in the culture wars. But true Liberal Evangelicals are not culture warriors! We are lovers of peace and understanding and do not wish either side harm. But therein lies the danger.

In war, both sides worry that civilians are merely enemies in disguise. Both sides worry that non-combatants are disingenuous and may be spies. And there are no shortcuts whereby real non-combatants can demonstrate their principled neutrality. We can only go on living, worshiping, praying, loving, writing, and listening with our dual commitments in tact, all the while hoping that our persistent witness to the power of Christian love to overcome difference will bear fruit.

Both Liberalism and Evangelicalism are modern movements that grew up in a world used to political and philosophical revolutions, so as Liberal Evangelicals we may expect to win quick victories, hearts and minds in mere months or years. But when Liberalism and Evangelicalism are united in order to advance the goals of creating a Church that thrives amid difference, we shouldn’t expect immediate returns or sudden revolutions. The witness of love across differences is a slow process, it wins hearts and minds through steadfastness, not through sudden conversion.

If our October visitor ever drops by again, I hope s/he will see that we are still here, still slogging through the slow process of learning to love one another in a church that welcomes difference. I hope that there are more of us. I hope that our cause is advancing. I hope that our persistence will stand as a sign that we are not wolves in sheep’s clothing, but rather genuine seekers of truth and tolerance.