Steve Shoemaker, host of “Keepin the Faith” (WILL/AM, Illinois Public Media) emailed this morning asking for thoughts about a post on “Protestants for the Common Good: ‘People of Faith Advancing Justice in Public Life’”: Can Christians Be Conservative? - an insiders’ academic debate among contemporary Christian theologian-ethicists. It’s worth a read. Tell me what you think.
Here’s what I wrote:
I’m not sure quite how to respond to the piece or the discussion. Off the top, I would say that Jesus himself didn’t neatly fit any of the four polar categories: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary. Even more, if the question whether the “authentic Christian” can be a conservative is more than a rhetorical question, it should be immediately dismissed – the question itself means that the answer has already been decided in the negative. Sort of like the question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!”
Greenfield’s take on Mark 1 is interesting, but, on first reading, it seems to me to miss the point that John the Baptist’s wilderness movement involved all four dimensions. It was conservative, liberal, reactionary, and revolutionary all at the same time. The trek to the Jordean wilderness was a reaction to the collusion between the local religious and political authorities (e.g. Vichy France?) and their Roman (e.g. Third Reich) occupiers. It was also a revolutionary call for a new social order, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” The grounds for that claim sprang out of the tradition that John and Jesus were conserving, while liberating it from captivity to the spirit of self-serving gains, idolatrous collaboration, self-righteousness and ethnocentrism. In short, the John-Jesus movement doesn’t fit nicely in any one or two categories.
Everywhere I look in the Gospels, I see a Jesus who doesn’t fit our categories. I still don’t know what to do with him. “Can a Christian be conservative?” assumes from that outset that to be conservative is to be an “inauthentic” Christian. But even if one believes that conservative views and practices are inimical to the way of Jesus, there is the deeper question that puts that question in proper perspective: “Can a sinner be a Christian?” Only a sinner can be a disciple of Jesus. Some of the sinners and sins are primarily conservative, some liberal, some reactionary, and some revolutionary by disposition and by political persuasion. Most of us are some strange mixture of the four. So I would answer Larry’s question “Can Christian be conservative?” with ”You betcha!” How do I know? Because it’s the wrong question. I don’t get to choose who is “authentically” Christian anymore than Jesus let his detractors decide. Moreover, I know conservatives who call themselves Christian who put my stewardship and hands-on work with the poorest of the poor to shame. While I’m calling for the revolution, the conservatives I have in mind spend every Saturday preparing and serving meals at the homeless shelter and every Sunday afternoon after putting up with my sermons visiting people they know in town who are down and out – slipping them $100 bills so the utilities don’t get turned off – while I, having preached the revolution, go out for lunch and then go home for a nap.
William Stringfellow stops us all cold in our tracks with his criticism of the church:
Christ’s is a ministry of great extravagance – of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of his life for the sake of the world’s life. Christ gives away his life. The world finds new life in His life and in His gift of His life to the world. His is not a very prudential life, not a very conservative life, not a very cautious life, not – by ordinary standards – a very successful life. He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax collectors, not even neurotics and psychotics…not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed him, not even those who betrayed him, not even his own enemies. He shunned no one. The words that [describe] the ministry of Christ are…sorrow, poverty, rejection, radical, unpopularity. They are the words of agony. It seems ridiculous to apply such words to the ministry of churches nowadays. Yet where these words cannot be truthfully applied to the ministry of churches today they must then be spoken against the churches to show how far the churches are from being the body of Christ engaged in the ministry of Christ in the world.
For Stringfellow the gospel was the vitality of the Word-made-flesh among the principalities and powers of death in this world. None of us has a corner on that Word. One might say that for Stringfellow there is a fifth category that describes the authentic following of Jesus: the life of ‘resistance’ as articulated in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and The Politics of Spirituality, books uniquely addressed to the church in the American situation.
The question, it seems to me, is beyond ethics, and it is certainly beyond the false choice between the polar opposites: conservative/liberal; reactionary/revolutionary: Can or should a Christian be conservative, liberal, a reactionary, or a revolutionary? The ethics question rises from the theological-faith question: “Where today do we encounter the vitality of th e Word Made Flesh,and, in that encounter, who and how does God call us to be among the principalities and powers as the sinful, timid, confused, forgiven and redeemed disciples of Jesus
In terms of Christian ethics, as I see it, the answer, depending on the situation, involves all four dimensions supplemented by Stringfellow’s fifth descriptor.
I see elements of all five, for example, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who boldly conserved the tradition against the false interpretation of the German Third Reich and its ecclesiastical collaborators and paid the price with bodily resistance. Yes? No? Maybe?
Look forward to hearing your comments.