The Common Good

Developing ‘Conservative radicals’ in Christian higher education

Date: August 14, 2008

In his recent book, The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis suggests that it is time to move beyond the conservative vs. liberal paradigm to a framework he calls conservative radicalism. This is true in American culture, in evangelicalism and certainly in Baptist life. As the new school year dawns, I find myself increasingly clear that this is the vision I want to try to impart to seminary students and undergraduates here at Mercer. Perhaps others in Christian higher education will find it relevant.

Wallis defines this new term in this way: “To be conservative means to be rooted -- in a tradition, in faith, in core values. To be radical also means to be rooted (radical comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root”), which gives one a consistent perspective on the world. So these two -- radical and conservative -- may not be contradictory but in fact deeply complementary.”

In other words, conservative radicals are tethered so tightly to Christ that they are consistently capable of a radical obedience to him.

Let’s unpack that a bit further.

Students need to be conservative in the sense that they should conserve a central focus on Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of the world and the head of the church. They should conserve a lived-out belief in the centrality, truthfulness and authority of the Bible. They should, if possible, learn to read the Bible in its original languages with the highest degree of skill and hermeneutical ability that they can muster and become adept in its practical application.

Students need to be committed to conserving the church and its sacred mission. Many of our churches are floundering in Baptist life, and in many colleges and seminaries a calling to serve the church is seen as second-class in comparison with other opportunities. We need to graduate from our schools generations of students who will instead love the church and consider local-church service a very high calling.

Students must be taught to be committed to conserving Christian tradition. This does not mean a slavish (or knavish) worship of Luther or Calvin, Augustine or Aquinas. But it does mean that they cherish the gathered cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in Christian history, and that they learn to think with the saints rather than against them or without them. Certainly there will be times for dissent from the tradition, but even dissent requires an informed, respectful familiarity.

Students need to conserve the personal piety and high moral code that so many imbibed in their families and local churches. After my conversion as a 16-year-old, youth leaders taught the practices of Christian spiritual formation and personal morality with sufficient clarity that our group was rapidly led to anchor each day in prayer and to clean up our personal lifestyles. May the freedom students enjoy in most of our colleges and seminaries prove to be an occasion for the personal choice to continue to live in a way that pleases God and bears witness to a life of high moral purpose.

I also want my students to be radicals. As Jim Wallis puts it, “what we need most are people rooted in ‘conservative’ values and commitments but willing to be ‘radical’ enough to apply those very values in the real world.”

Students should be radicals when it comes to loyalty to Christ as Lord. This requires the subjugation of all other loyalties, such as loyalty to a job, a lifestyle, a denomination, or a nation. Only a radical is willing to lose their job at a church because they are, for example, unwilling to permit class snobbery or xenophobia to prevail in local church life.

Students need to be radicals when it comes to loving every person whom God loves. Only a radical is willing to welcome the AIDS patient, the ex-con, the illegal immigrant, the doubter -- or whoever else God brings our way in the local church.

Students should be radicals when it comes to defending the human rights of strangers. Only a radical speaks up for blacks victimized in the criminal-justice system, or for suspected terrorists who have been tortured, or for those evicted from their homes because of predatory lending practices.

Students need to be radicals when it comes to innovating how to do church in a postmodern age. Driven by a “conservative” evangelistic commitment and love for the church, they must be “radical” in finding ways to advance these commitments in an age in which traditional ways of doing church are often ineffective.

Students should be radicals when it comes to personally living out the teachings of Jesus. May all of us nurture students who will care for God’s creation, who will forgive their enemies and those who hurt them, who will resist violence, who will pray daily for the reign of God, who will tell the truth even when it might cost them, and who will keep their lifetime marriage commitments if they make them.

Students need to be radicals in racial reconciliation and justice efforts. May they create interracial community now and interracial churches in years to come. May they read, think, and dialogue across racial lines. I dream of my black students quoting Clarence Jordan and my white students quoting Howard Thurman. 

On my office wall at McAfee there is a display of photographs of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. All of the women and men pictured there were conservative radicals in the sense outlined. May our Baptist colleges and schools nurture the kind of young people who will follow their path.