Christian (and Liberal) in a Small Town
I have written several drafts of this post already, but so far nothing has “stuck” enough to publish. Last Sunday, however, our pastor’s sermon at church resonated with me. He talked about Luke 18:9–14, which is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (NIV)
He spoke about how the Pharisee was righteous enough to do all the right things according to God’s word, but not righteous enough to humble himself before God. The tax collector, on the other hand, knew he was a sinner and did not feel worthy to be in God’s presence. He stood at the back of the temple and humbly prayed that God would have mercy on him.
The Pharisees were often a target of Jesus’ criticism. They adhered strictly to their laws (613 of them, to be exact), but in doing so often missed the point of God’s own commandments and became self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical-so much so that the word Pharisee is now used as a synonym for those qualities. Jesus condemned their legalistic nature because it led them to appear outwardly spiritual while they neglected to understand and follow the spirit and inherent meaning of God’s laws.
As Luke 5:32 reads, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (NIV). None of us have fallen (or can fall) too far to escape the reach of God’s love-it is always there waiting for us when we return, even when (especially when) we do not feel we are worthy of it-and those who proclaim themselves righteous are clearly not the focus of God’s redemptive purpose.
More often than not over the past few years, I have identified more with the tax collector than the Pharisee in Luke 18. That is not to say I don’t have my own “Pharisee-like” moments; I think we all do. However, since I made the personal journey from being mostly conservative to fairly liberal and have been vocal and unwavering in my views, I have definitely felt judgment-and even ostracism-from some around me. Many of those same people are also quick to qualify and quantify my own faith, because as they perceive it, no one could possibly be both fully Christian and a liberal/Democrat.
I think that is the worst and most discouraging part of all, because faith-Christian or otherwise-is such a personal thing and should be respected as such. I cannot understand the motivation behind calling something like that into question, especially if you take seriously Jesus’ command to go out and make disciples of the world. While many Christians feel persecuted as fewer people readily accept the use of faith as a social and legal weapon to target LGBTQ+ communities and abortion providers alike, I believe the real harm to Christianity is coming from within-in the form of Christians who are tending more toward the Pharisee perspective of religion rather than Jesus’ message of unconditional love.
There is something about clearly and proudly identifying yourself as different from the majority that distances you from them, both inter- and intra-personally. Not only do I have a hard time understanding their views on logical and emotional levels; I have also frequently been the target of verbal assaults from those on the opposite side of the political aisle. These have ranged from strangers in the comments section of news articles hurling base insults at me, to friends and acquaintances unfriending me or blocking me on Facebook, to people I previously respected and valued as friends in my community (and church) essentially looking past me in public and social settings. During the 2018 midterms, my dad’s cousin even went so far as to attack me on a very personal level when I countered his point on a mutual relative’s Facebook post, not realizing that we were related because of my married name. It was the perfect example of how we tend to treat people that we don’t know personally with whom we disagree.
It is all too easy to categorize people and put them into boxes based on variables like political affiliation without knowing or understanding the person behind the label. I am admittedly as guilty of that sin as anyone else at times, since I often get so caught up in “being right” that I forget my commitment to conducting myself according to this quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
It makes us deeply uncomfortable when something or someone doesn’t fit neatly into one category or another. Even within ourselves, conflicting feelings and beliefs can lead to some particularly unsettling cognitive dissonance. There will arguably never be a time where we will all agree on hot-button issues or where those things occur within neat, delineated black and white confines. Reality exists in shades of gray.
Of course, polarity in politics and social/religious issues is definitely not a new concept. People have quite literally been disagreeing about these things since the beginning of time. Wars have been fought in the names of religion, nationalism, and politics, and our daily social strife is a byproduct of the underlying current of tension these things create. In a modern society where we cannot simply “agree to disagree” anymore-certainly not when lives are quite literally on the line-the resulting chaos is played out publicly on social media rather than solely in the confines of our own homes as in days past, and the innate need for the comfort and familiarity of things to be clear cut and binary is greater than ever.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I can be sarcastic and abrasive at times when it comes to the subject of politics, but I don’t usually unleash that side unless provoked. Most of the time, I try my hardest to remain civil and respectful and back my opinions with facts rather than emotions. My unofficial personal rule is to not comment on anyone else’s contrary posts unless they are obviously misstating facts and/or disseminating myths in the process. I think that while we should all be entitled to our own opinions, we should also be basing them on verifiable facts and statistics and not the literal “fake news” that became so common during the 2016 elections. I also firmly believe that if we all started with confirmed information sources, our opinions would likely converge closer to the middle rather than the extremes we’re left with in the face of polarizing language and self-confirming biases.
However, I also think that questioning, or worse, delegitimizing someone’s personal faith goes far beyond crossing the so-called “line” in social discourse, especially when you’re virtual (no pun intended) strangers. It speaks to how far we have fallen as a country in recent years, an issue that began with conservatives questioning President Obama’s faith prior to the 2008 election and that has obviously continued (and gotten worse) since then-particularly as more and more of Trump’s supporters cite his defense of Christianity as one of their main reasons for supporting him.
Now I realize that I am being fundamentally hypocritical here; however, it is very difficult to see on any level how the supposed champion of the Christian faith in politics could be so un-Christ-like himself. It isn’t that he is just “imperfect”; that is a human universality. It is that he is historically, continually, and uniformly boastful, prideful, arrogant, self-indulgent, lustful, lewd and lascivious, greedy, nationalistic, ethnocentric, xenophobic, bigoted, chauvinistic, dishonest, and unable to accept or even to rationally deal with criticism. In light of those things, what is it that his supporters see that makes him so admirable to them?
Many will cite his economic achievements, but fail to acknowledge that the economy began its recovery under President Obama-or that the Bible consistently commands us to not be “of this world” and denounces greed and selfishness. Others will say he “tells it like it is” or “says what everyone is thinking”-this about the person who literally called a group of white supremacists who ran down a protester “very fine people”; who bragged about how he “grab[s] women by the p***y” and how he could essentially shoot someone in public and not lose his supporters. Still others will claim it is his tough stance on immigration reform and Second Amendment/military defense-a position I find particularly unsettling as a Christian given how many times Jesus commanded us to “welcome the foreigner among us” and “turn the other cheek” in regards to violence. As a people who should theoretically and purposefully be identified by our welcoming and caring nature and passivity as we live by loving our neighbors and enemies alike, it is hard to witness how far many Christian Trump supporters have strayed from that idea in the name of their own fears-which Jesus also specifically tells us to not worry about and that Trump has capitalized on in his campaign and presidency.
At the most fundamental of motivations, it seems that many conservatives, particularly those who are single-issue voters, focus on the so-called “pro-life” aspect of the political right. I have written several times about what I see as the hypocrisy therein and the revisionist history of the moral majority as it pertains to abortion and racism, an underlying factor that most people (conservatives and liberals alike) are not aware of. While I think all Christians believe in and affirm the sanctity of both life in general and human life in particular, denominations and individuals often differ in how we interpret and act upon those ideals.
On one hand is Christian Right, which has firmly aligned themselves with both Donald Trump’s brand of Christian theology and their own interpretation of God’s intention in regards to life. While Trump’s policies have separated immigrant families and placed their children in cages, they consistently focus on his (and their) anti-abortion stance, even to the exclusion of the very policies that support the lives they proclaim to care about and want to save. As more and more anti-abortion legislation makes its way to Congress (which is typically devoid of factual and scientific realities), conservatives are simultaneously-and almost universally-in favor of proposed laws that limit welfare and Medicaid, either on a federal budget level or in regards to the obstacles that are placed in the way of the path toward obtaining those resources.
Furthermore, conservatives also typically vote in favor of abstinence-only education, which inevitably and historically leads to the well-documented statistical phenomenon of significantly more unintended pregnancies and abortions and a rise in STD rates under Republican-majority governments than is found under Democrat-controlled congresses (which tend to focus heavily on preventative measures like accessibility to birth control and healthcare and science-based sex education.)
At the heart of the matter is this: in my opinion, you cannot focus solely on verses like Jeremiah 1:5 (“”Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”-NIV) without understanding the context surrounding it or the wider view of Jesus’ commandments in regards to the way in which we are to treat our fellow humans. Jeremiah 1 focuses on God’s calling of the prophet Jeremiah. In the verse in question, Jeremiah is questioning God’s appointment of him as a prophet, stating that he is “too young” to speak on behalf of God’s purpose. In the next verses, God replies:
7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. 9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (NIV)
Far from being a universally-applicable edict that “God knows us before we are born” and therefore we cannot possibly willingly destroy potential fetal life, God is clearly speaking to Jeremiah (and his own inherent fears) directly. Therefore, it is not only a dubious addition to the argument against abortion; it is also theologically irresponsible to disregard the context of the scripture in and of itself in the wider view of things. In other words, it is another prime example of biblical cherry-picking.
To my knowledge, there is no verse to be found in the Bible that deals directly with the immorality of abortion. There are, however, several instances in which God or the prophets call for abortions under various circumstances, one of which is a test of a wife’s faithfulness or proof of adultery. In Numbers 5:11–31, it is ordered that if a wife has committed adultery, she will miscarry as a result of this test and be cursed. There is no mention of the loss of the fetus’ life in the passage-instead, the focus is completely on the sin of being unfaithful in the confines of marriage.
In Exodus 21:12–25, the laws regarding personal injuries are enumerated. Verse 12 specifies that if someone causes another to die, they should be put to death. In the following verses, death is also a prescribed consequence for attacking or cursing one’s mother and father or kidnapping someone. The next verses are where it gets a little more interesting. Exodus 21:20–21 state that if a slave owner beats their slave and causes death, they are to be punished-but not if the slave recovers, since they are their property. Verses 22–25 follow to say:
22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[e] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (NIV)
[e] Exodus 21:22 Or she has a miscarriage
While the wife’s life is treated in that instance as the husband’s property, the consequences for taking an unborn life are not discussed here-despite all of the other (very specific) circumstances regarding injuries that are described, down to the deaths of and caused by animals.
Do not mistake me; my point here is not to justify abortion through scripture, but rather to point out that the sanctity of life, the conditions that define it (i.e., slaves and women being treated as property rather than living beings), and when that life begins all exist in a much more complex Biblical framework than pro-lifers tend to portray in their arguments. Yes, God knows all of us while we were in our mother’s womb, but He is also all-knowing. His prophets and followers did not deal directly with the immorality of abortion during their time, instead focusing on the sanctity of all life as-is on earth (complete with sin) as well as the immorality of purposefully withholding love-and resources-from God’s people and creation, especially in His name. Mark 12:28–31 summarizes this overarching theme well:
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV)
I feel that I have to take the time to specify again that I, and others like me, do not “support”, derive joy from, or believe in the unrestricted use of abortion as birth control. Christian pro-choice advocates generally believe in the accessibility of abortions in the cases of rape and incest or medical necessity, wherein either the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus has well-documented deformities that are clearly and undeniably incompatible with life (i.e., missing part of the brain, as is the case with anencephaly ).
We believe that these choices should ultimately be left between them and their doctors, not predetermined by bureaucrats working to get votes out of their supposed “commitment to the pro-life movement”. We believe, as Hillary Clinton maintained throughout her congressional history and presidential campaign, that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare”-a far cry from the evil and largely mythical ideas of “late term abortions” or “partial birth/post birth abortions” that are often misattributed both to HRC and to our cause as progressive Christians.
As I have said before, literally no one believes in abortions at term, much less just because the mother-to-be changes her mind. No one. NO ONE. That idea is being used by conservatives, particularly those of the Christian Right, to sway votes in their favor, knowing full well that they are manipulating the good faith of Christian voters and their pro-life tendencies. The documentary “The Family”, which can be found on Netflix, is a great example of the Christian Right’s involvement in and manipulation of politics, as is my aforementioned blog post Trump, Jesus, and Modern Christianity.
If we are to take seriously God’s commandments in regards to life, I firmly believe that we must not singularly focus on the innately attractive aspects of pure, innocent life before birth. That part is inherently easy and convenient-the potential for that life to become one of the collective “us” that fits well within our categorical confines. It becomes much harder and more inconvenient when that life turns out to be (or is) non-Christian, non-white, non-heterosexual or gender binary; uneducated, poor, or dependent on social welfare; is not a U.S. citizen by birth, comes from a war-torn country, is fleeing violence or genocide, or simply seeking a better life and safety for their family; is disabled or plagued by chronic or severe, acute illness(es) and requires healthcare; is mentally ill and in need of attention; is homeless, in need of food, clothing, and shelter; is an outspoken woman who is not content with being a second-class citizen (especially through mis-guided biblical justification); is a progressive social justice warrior focused on remedying the social injustices of daily life and in the wider context; is a voter on the opposite side of the political spectrum who believes just as strongly in their views-and can justify them just as well as-you do and can.
We are all made in God’s own image, and therefore all of us are worthy in His eyes. Most of the problems found in the human experience can be attributed to seeing others who are not like us as less than worthy, or worse, not worthy of God’s grace and love. If you truly believe God loves everyone (all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white) you cannot also believe that he loves children from the United States or those who look and live and believe like you more than anyone else. That is, on a fundamental level, nationalism and/or Christian nationalism. To fully believe in and accept God’s call for discipleship, we must all truly see one another as God does-unconditionally equal and equally deserving of His-and our-love.
In writing this, it is not my intention to condemn those I do not agree with, nor those who don’t agree with me (which is a completely different aspect of this issue). I do not claim to hold that power, nor do I believe it is my place to do so. However, if you feel personally convicted by something I have said here, I believe that might be an opportunity to explore why that is.
Change is rarely comfortable or pretty. It takes time, effort, and the willingness to deal with life’s messy stuff. When you begin to confront your own deeply-held ideas, biases, and the lens through which you view the world (which is ultimately a product of your own upbringing, history, and experiences), you enter a state of cognitive dissonance (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change). In other words, it makes us very uncomfortable when we realize that the things we have believed for so long may not be true or real or factually-based. It’s something that all of us have to deal with at one point or another, and it can either lead to more deeply entrenching yourself in your existing views or beginning the process of change that can result from actively coming to terms with a new reality.
I was raised in a Catholic, conservative household, in that order. While my dad is still firmly rooted in those ideals, I have since (as an adult and eventually having a family of my own) converted to the United Methodist Church-and yes, liberalism. My journey occurred both through social discourse with people who were different than me and some serious self-reflection. I had to accept that much of what I had and was basing my political opinions on were myths based on our fundamental human fears rather than on reality. When confronted with those actualities, I came to see the world in a very different way.
I began to understand that corporate welfare has a much greater negative impact on the average person’s bottom line than the working poor (which many-if not most-welfare recipients are); a truth that becomes that much more glaring when you realize that the top 1% owns half of the world’s wealth.
I realized that illegal immigrants are not, in fact, eligible for federal financial assistance and haven’t been since 1996 under the Clinton administration. Even legal immigrants have to be in the United States for five years before they can apply for welfare. Far from being the financial and sociological burden that I had been led to believe, I saw that immigrants-even illegal ones-contribute a great deal toward our country’s industries and tax reserves. Most are not here to “get a free ride” or “take over our country”; they simply want a better life and future for their families-and they are willing to work hard to achieve that. Both legal and illegal immigrants are also statistically less likely than U.S. citizens to commit crimes, as they do not want to jeopardize their citizenship status or risk deportation.
I also saw that while all lives should matter, reality demonstrates historically and consistently that they do not. People of color face discrimination on a daily basis even in modern society, from subtle social snubs to outright racism and violence. When I hear about another black man being killed by a white police officer, I no longer automatically ask, “Well what did they do to draw the attention of law enforcement? Why did they not just follow instructions?” I now see that it is rarely that straightforward…yes, there are racist police officers, and black people are more often the target of lethal force (and for lesser crimes) than their white counterparts.
Instead of ascribing to the “love the sinner, hate the sin” view of LGBTQ+ people, I now understand how inherently judgmental that justification is. The issue of homosexuality in the biblical context is one of those gray areas that necessitate much individual interpretation. I do not think that gay people are any more guilty of sin than you or I. Nor do I believe that they should be condemned by Christians or the courts. The increased risk of violence and suicide that they face deeply saddens me, as does the fact that Christians, who are called to love everyone, are driving them away from the faith and church.
Speaking of faith, I do not believe in the popular idea that Christianity is “under attack” or that Christians are widely being discriminated against in the United States. People are simply much less willing to allow Christians to use their faith as a weapon against minorities (like LGBTQ+ individuals) or a motivation for excluding and condemning those who are not like them. More and more Christians are stepping forward and saying, “that’s not my Jesus.” The Jesus I know was a radical disrupter of unjust religious and secular laws, a champion for the downtrodden and poor. He called all of us to simply love God and love one another, something that I feel we are failing spectacularly at if we are willing to justify the separation of families at the border and keeping children in cages; to be okay with the withholding of resources from the people who need them most just so we can have a little more in our own pockets; to claim victory in God’s name nationally while we look the other way when it comes to an outwardly and consistently immoral president.
These are just a few of the issues that have influenced my personal faith and political journey. Far from driving me away from my Christian faith, it has pulled me closer to God’s love. I feel more authentically like I am following Christ now that I am trying to live by Jesus’ own words instead of by a set of legalistic, Pharisee-like rules that used to dictate my personal set of beliefs and morals. I can more easily see God in those around me, and that has positively affected my interactions with people who are different than me. I am much slower to judge others because I can see that most people do not fit in nice, neat boxes and that their life experiences have shaped the way they feel and believe just as mine have. And it is my inherent hope that by being an open, accepting, and welcoming Christian, that I can draw others to my faith rather than push them away.
Equal and abundant love and justice, both under God’s laws and our country’s, do not cost us anything. As one of my favorite sayings goes, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.” That, in a nutshell, is my motivation for social justice. I feel that both as a human and a Christian, it is my duty to duly call out injustices and prejudices and wrongs when I see them. I can no longer sit idly by as I witness racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia or xenophobia-and I have an inherent obligation to combat those things as much as is within my power.
I have also become bold and resounding in my views. I no longer feel like I have to be restrained while bearing witness to the lesser aspects and ills and injustices of life; instead, proclaiming loudly and without fear of retribution that they are not acceptable. That kind of innate self-knowing confidence is incredibly freeing. When you don’t feel as if you have to conform yourself to others’ viewpoints and ideals, or remain silent in their midst, you connect solidly with both God and yourself. Diligently and unapologetically pursuing your own path in this life and the one after is a glorious and joyful experience, and I will not let the Pharisees or eternal high school girls of the world stop me.
Originally published at http://sincerelyaformerrepublican.blogspot.com on November 3, 2019.