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Posted: March 17, 2011 6:52 p.m.

About Faith: Liberal or Conservative?

In recent weeks, much space in the Religion section has been given to the subject of whether Jesus was a conservative or a liberal, and I feel compelled to add my two humble cents.

I have great respect for my colleagues, Jason Dees (First Baptist Church) and Billy Wade (First Presbyterian Church). I appreciate the dialogue they have started, as well as the larger conversation ongoing among our various denominations. We are truly fortunate to live in a time and place where such open discussion is not only tolerated but welcomed.

Having said that, I would like to suggest that there is an element of absurdity to the question.

Wade rightly pointed out that Jesus made an effort to avoid being pigeonholed into any particular ideological camp. God (and the Son of God) transcends any labels that would pin him into our narrow categories. In this sense, the question is silly, like asking "What was Jesus' denominational affiliation?"

(Hint: the Bible clearly states that Jesus did not baptize anyone (John 4:2), but in John Chapter 9 he had a method for curing blindness with dirt and spit).

Perhaps it would be better to turn the question back on ourselves and ask, "To what extent do my liberal or conservative views reflect the mind of Christ? In what ways do I miss the mark?"

Critical self-reflection is a task more likely to bear good fruit. Rather than ask Jesus to conform to our own views, we should endeavor to be transformed into his. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).

"Liberal" and "conservative", of course, are loaded terms with a hair trigger, and they are used to aim against others as much as to describe our own position.
To make matters worse, the two words have come to mean different things over time and in different settings. The classic definition of liberalism is to promote liberty and equality. In this sense, Jesus was unquestionably liberal. He was all about setting people free from that which held them in bondage, and loving people equally regardless of race, class or gender.

But the classic definition of conservatism also describes Jesus. Conservatism promotes conservation of traditional institutions ("I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it"). Conservatism also promotes gradual change, and in this sense, Jesus was anything but conservative. Gradual change would not have gotten him killed.

But there is another way of looking at conservatism and liberalism, which Dees addressed.

Conservatives have come to be regarded as those who promote personal responsibility, while liberals are often seen as those who promote social responsibility for the welfare of others.

Again, Jesus avoids being neatly placed in one camp or another. To the crowds who gathered around him he taught personal responsibility.

For example in the parable of the 10 bridesmaids (Matthew 25), the five "foolish" bridesmaids could not expect help from the five "wise" ones who brought enough oil. This was not because the wise ones were mean and selfish, but simply because there was not enough oil to go around.

But the mantra of self responsibility too often gives us an excuse to withhold compassion for others.

Jesus' angriest words were reserved for those in power who failed to promote social welfare. He catalogued "woes" against the Pharisees and scribes who laid heavy burdens on others and made a show of giving a pittance to the poor.

"For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others" (Matthew 23:23). "You devour widows' houses, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers" (Luke 20:47).

As I read the gospels, Jesus never preached to the crowds that they should regard themselves as victims and expect a handout. But neither did he preach to the leaders that they were absolved of their responsibility to look after the lost sheep simply because the sheep got lost on their own. Words like these should not leave us feeling comfortable or smug, but should inspire us to soberly consider our own self responsibility without neglecting charity.

Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.

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