The Common Good

Am I Liberal or Conservative? Or Both? (Part 1)

It wasn't until I started working in the world of religion and politics with advocacy organizations on Capitol Hill that I ever heard anyone define Christians as liberal or conservative. These terms were not used in my church experience. But when I recall different experiences working in the church, I can see how some members of the churches where I worshiped then, where I worship now, and in congregations across the country, fit into these categories. I've found it difficult to determine which of these categories I fit into as a Christian. Am I liberal or am I conservative? More importantly, can the two co-exist in the church?

When I think about my passion for social justice, starting with the days when I, along with a group of church members, would go out every Wednesday night, feed the homeless, pass out the Daily Bread, talk with them, and invite them to worship, and how once a month we would conduct a worship service at the neighborhood homeless shelter and extend the invitation to accept Jesus and join the church, I'm not sure if these actions make me a liberal or a conservative. But I also remember the day I realized that surely there must be more to it than this. I began to ask, why are we always feeding and providing clothes to the same people month after month, and in some instances, year after year? Isn't there more we can do to change their situations? In general, I had assumed that something beyond their own control was keeping them in poverty and perhaps there were systems of oppression working against many of the people we came in contact with on the streets. I began to realize that just generosity, though necessary, wasn't going to bring about justice. When I look at it this way, I can hear colleagues of mine in the religious advocacy world saying, yep, you're a liberal all right.

But not so fast -- maybe I'm a conservative? Just last week, I was teaching Sunday school and the text was "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Surely this text did not suppose that every person who is poor shall inherit the kingdom. There are people who are not "saved" who are poor, and even some very bad people who are poor.

As we discussed the possibility that Jesus meant something more spiritual than physical, that perhaps we are blessed and will inherit the kingdom when two things occur: First, we look at our spiritual condition without Christ and our inability to do anything to change it, and recognize our plight but realize that because of Christ's love for us, we are blessed because our sins will not be counted against us, and that's why we will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Second, when we look at the condition of the world: communities overcome by crime, drugs, gun violence, and other social ills, we as Christians can recognize the sinful nature of people committing these acts, and through our spiritual lens understand that systemic change is not going to come at the hands of the government, police, or job opportunities alone. (All of these will help the social conditions, but do nothing to change the spiritual conditions.) Deep down, what people need most is a relationship with a God who looks beyond their faults and sees their deepest needs. True changes occur from the inside out.

Maybe this perspective makes me a conservative. I'm not sure which label fits me best, but one thing I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: When we remove the layers of labels, like the grave clothes that confined Lazarus, we can look in the mirror and know in our hearts that we are Christians.

[to be continued...]

Rev. Romal Tune is the CEO of Clergy Strategic Alliances, a graduate of Howard University and Duke University School of Divinity, and a member of the Red Letter Christians.

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