Sunday, December 20, 2020

Am I loving my neighbor...


It's Sunday morning, and since I'm on leave from active ministry for a season, my Sunday morning routine has changed.  I used to get up around 4:00 on Sunday, fix my first cup of coffee, grab my laptop, and spend the next couple hours doing my final edits on the day's theological ramblings, then get ready and head out to lead worship.  Now, I don't.  

I do, however, still spend a good deal of time waxing theological, usually just in conversations with myself, but occasionally it is through social media.  Yesterday was one of the latter, and it bit me on the tail.  I woke up this morning thinking about it, and wondering what it was about the post that turned out to be so upsetting.  Looking back, I think the original post, and I'll share that in just a second, was laden with connotations that I didn't initially see because, after 20 plus years of pulpit ministry, it resonated with me.  

Basically, it was about labels, and labels can be dangerous.  Although I'm not a fan of labels except on the homemade jellies in my jelly cupboard, maybe they can be helpful for reflection purposes.  If we find ourselves more aligned with one group or another, sometimes putting a name to that, although divisive to a degree for some, builds a sense of unity for others...good, bad, neither, or both.  Still dangerous.   

The post was from a group called Nazarenes for Peace, and although the Nazarene Church shares my Wesleyan roots, or so I'm told, I know nothing about this particular group.  Here is what it said, quoting their post: "Who would have ever thought that loving your neighbor would be considered liberal theology?"

Let's just let that one marinate for a second.  

Here's where my reflections came in this morning.  One of the comments, and the one that made me delete my post until I'd had time to reflect on it, and one from a brother whom I love dearly and have for nearly 40 years, was something to the effect, "So because I'm a conservative I don't love my neighbor."  Ouch.  I immediately took the post down because that was not my intention at all, and I didn't want to send a message that I hadn't thought through completely. 

That is the problem with labels, and in our current environment, particularly when applying the conservative/liberal label to another.  See, I grew up in a very conservative home, in a very conservative county, in a red state.  I was taught conservative values, (i.e. the importance of family, honesty, loyalty, etc, etc, etc.)  I was raised on conservative theology, with a very literal reading of scripture, and strongly conservative ethics taught in all of my Sunday School classes.  But...that was nearly 50 years ago.  Now, though, after 50 trips around the sun, 21 years of pastoral ministry, a Master of Divinity degree, and being forced to think outside of myself to earn that degree, I've shifted.  

Maybe it's not that I've shifted.  Perhaps my definition of liberal/conservative has shifted.  See, whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot separate our personal theology from our personal politics.  One will definitely shape the other.  We get to determine which does what, though.  Does our personal politics shape our personal theology?  OR...does our theology shape our political leanings?  For me, it's the latter.  I believe what I believe politically because of what I believe theologically, and I think that most of us do.  What I have noticed over the years is that things I used to believe in, politically, are on a completely different plane from where I am now, simply because I was forced, in seminary, to get outside of myself.  

My last post was about how seminary had ruined my life, and while that was satirical in intention, it wasn't completely untrue.  Until I was forced to begin thinking in ways I never had to before, I was perfectly comfortable in my literal interpretation of scripture and the conservative theology in which I was reared.  Then I found out that scripture wasn't written to be taken literally, that Jesus was indeed a radical that bucked every system in place at the time, that Paul's letters were not even intended for us to read, and that God's unconditional love for all of humankind is utterly ridiculous (in a good way.)

Which leads to the reason I had to write this morning.  

Back to the social media post in question from yesterday.  Since it brought up the divisive nature of liberal/conservative labels, and since it implied that one loves their neighbor while the other doesn't, I would like to try a little exercise this morning.  Given the hot button political issues with which we have been inundated of late, let's play a little game.  (And I'm trying to do this as equitably as possible)  I am going to list some of the hot button issues we've seen in the headlines lately, then I'll ask if you think they are conservative/liberal ideologies, then I'll ask if they lead us to love our neighbors.  I'm doing this here because I've already spent the morning doing it in my head.  Understand, going into this that I'm not trying to persuade one way or the other, just offering some points to ponder.  I also know that this is probably going to get me into trouble, but I never shied away from the tough questions, even when they caused some very tense moments in my career.  Here we go, and this is just for fun, and a little self-reflection. 

Pro-birth:  (In this instance, only means anti-abortion, regardless of the circumstance)   Do you think that's a Conservative/liberal ideology?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Pro-choice: (In this instance, means a woman has a right to choose what happens to her body)  Conservative/liberal stand?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Pro-life: (In this instance, anti-abortion, care of the child {and all human lives} taken into consideration)  Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

Immigration:  We need to break this one down a little.

    Closed borders: No one gets in unless they follow our laws.  Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

    Separating familes to discourage border crossing. (detaining parents and children separately) Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

The pandemic:  Let's break this one down a little, as well.

    Face masks: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

    Social distancing: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

    Possible Vaccine:  Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Individual rights: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Death Penalty:  Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Universal healthcare: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

I think I'll stop there before I really get into trouble with things like gun control, racism, gender equality, human sexuality, and a host of other questions we could raise.  

If you're still reading, what thoughts crossed your mind?  Without offering any of my answers, I've had to really stop and think about how the things I believe in call me to love my neighbor, or if they even do.  Hell, even thinking about whether I should write this or not made me ask myself, "Is doing this loving my neighbor?" I don't know. 

The easy answer is that there are just not any easy answers.  I know what I believe theologically about who Christ was in the world, then and now, and that has forced me to rethink some of the things that I thought I always believed politically.  Joseph, the guy who got to be dad to Jesus, loaded his family up one night and left the country to keep them safe.  That affects my stance on immigration.  Jesus, dying at the hands of the state as a rebel leader, affects my stance on capital punishment.  I loathe the very idea of abortion, but I can't imagine the pain of having to decide between my life and the life of my unborn child in an impossible pregnancy.  Face masks...I hate them, but if there is something to their benefit, and if wearing one MIGHT help save a life, then I'll do it.  There are too many questions with too many different answers for us to be trying to box them into just two categories...yet that is exactly what we have done.  

So, after much reflection this morning over a few cups of coffee and a keyboard, perhaps it was the words in the post, save one, that resonated with me.  Perhaps Nazarenes for Peace would have done better to say "Who would have ever thought that loving your neighbor would be considered RADICAL theology?"  Because, my friends, it is very radical.  It goes against basically everything we are taught as citizens of this world, and this country.  

I think it was Stephen Mattson who said, "Sometimes, being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman."  There is some truth to that.  Sometimes you can be both, sometimes you have to choose.  It was Joshua, in our ancient Hebrew text, who said, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  Doing that will sometimes make you look like a terrible citizen of this world.  I'm okay with that.  

Labels are so dangerous, and perhaps what triggered my self-reflection this morning wasn't the fact that the original post was about labels, though it was, but instead about a very fundamental question we all need to be asking ourselves.  That question is not "Do I see myself as conservative or liberal?"  Instead, maybe we should be asking, "Does the way I feel about this particular issue honor the love of God through the person and life of Christ?  And does it show the world that I love my neighbor?"