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Posted: March 11, 2011 12:00 a.m.

In Response: Bumper sticker ideology

I am writing in response to an article written by my friend and Christian brother, Jason Dees. I am writing because of others who have asked for my response. Jason is a very bright, energetic and faithful minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We enjoy each other’s company, and our congregations long have worshipped together and engaged in ministry together in this community. When Jason speaks, I listen. Of course, I do not always agree. We come from different traditions that have disagreed over some things for centuries.

When Jason introduced the subject of whether or not Jesus was a liberal, he went on to say that this is an "important conversation to have." So, I offer these thoughts in the spirit of dialogue, grateful that it can be spread over the pages of our local media. The truth is, I suspect, many more people will be listening to this conversation through the media than listened to my sermon last Sunday.

I do not presume to speak for all the people in my congregation, just as I do not presume that Jason speaks for all his people. Presbyterians tend to live together under a rather large theological and political umbrella. At one point we had both the chair of the Newton County Democratic Party and the Chair of the Newton County Republican Party in our church, and they got along, showing mutual respect and love.

I tend to be rather suspicious of labels. When someone asks me if I am a conservative or a liberal, I usually ask them, "In regard to what?" I mean it. I have been called both by my own parishioners. It often seems to be a relative thing, depending on who is doing the labeling.

I particularly have a difficult time labeling Jesus with such contemporary and provincial terms. The Jesus I know keeps challenging our attempts to pigeon-hole him, just as he did with the attempts of those who tried it in the first century. I believe Jesus’ words about "rendering to Caesar" (that Jason mentioned) are precisely an example of that. What that conversation does is to cause us to wrestle with what belongs to God, and challenges us with what then we will do with it in God’s name.

Jesus spoke more about money than almost anything else. It is no wonder. Money affects so much of our lives, and the way we deal with it is a very good indication of our faith. Jesus’ words on this subject rarely leave me feeling comfortable. They are nearly always challenging. He said that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. He told the story of the rich man who does not see the poor man at his very gate. Those words have to be unsettling to those of us who live comfortably in a society where the chasm between rich and poor is getting wider. Few of us think we are rich, and often we dismiss Jesus’ words as not having much to do with us or only pointing us to "deeper" spiritual issues.

In our congregation, we still speak of "debts" and "debtors" when we say The Lord’s Prayer. There are few things we have a harder time forgiving than things that have to do with money. Money, for us, often truly is the bottom line. Thus, our prayer can be terrifying: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Most of the time we would hope that would not be the case. Jesus’ parable of the one who is forgiven much debt but refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of another is a jolting reminder of how much God has forgiven us and what we might be called to forgive.

Yes, Jesus spoke of individual responsibility, but rarely did he send the poor away empty as he did the rich. We too easily dismiss the poor with our own excuses. Throughout the Old Testament the prophets chastised the rulers (the government) for disregarding the poor, for forgetting those in need. The Psalms, too, are full of calls for justice for the poor. We in the church are called to be generous. But the charity of the church alone has yet to put a dent in some of the huge social problems of our time. We live together in a wider community where we still have obligations to care for the "least" among us. Anything else is being less than responsible. Our Presbyterian tradition tells us that the highest calling is to be a public servant. I pray that I will have the faith and courage to be a voice for those who rarely are heard, and that I will put my money and my vote where my mouth is.

Truly, some people who call themselves "conservative" are some of the most faithful and compassionate people I know. So are some of those who call themselves "liberal".

Was Jesus a liberal? I believe Jesus cannot be defined by bumper sticker theology. Thank you, Jason, for opening the door for a deeper conversation.

My tradition has affirmed that none of us has the whole truth. We all "see through a glass dimly," as the Apostle Paul said. So, we need one another. We look forward again to annual Community Holy Week Worship Services. This year we will gather at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. Sometimes, there are many more folks attending from the host congregation, or more people who will attend when "their preacher" is preaching. I hope that many will come perhaps to hear a different voice, a voice we are not so used to, but one in which we might well be surprised to hear the voice of God.

 

Billy Wade is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Covington.

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