Labeled a Liberal

Driving home from the beach this afternoon, I listened to this story on NPR about a different kind of tea party.  I came home to read this fascinating article about Catholics in Chicago calling for change in the Catholic Church. Both of these news items use the word liberal. Repeatedly.

Somewhere I used to have a button that announced that Jesus was a liberal. It looked like the image to the left — though let’s be honest, any good liberal knows that Jesus wasn’t white. Still. It got people thinking. It got me thinking the first time I saw it. But, I haven’t heard this word used a lot since I wore that button in seminary. I was proud of this word once. It defined both my political and theological identity. Now, I’m not so sure.

Now, when I hear stories like these two, I wonder about the merit of creating factions. I wonder if those labels are really appropriate. I wonder if they really articulate what I want to convey. 

As a local church pastor, I wonder if they don’t just create more parking lot conversations. I don’t like parking lot conversations. If this is a new term to you, it refers to what happens when church people leave worship and gossip. It usually involves only listening to those that agree with you. It most often escalates frustration and annoyance — and more often than not, the alternative perspective is missing. All in all, this is not helpful. So, I wonder if that’s what is happening with all of these little groups forming inside party lines.

Still, I’m not sure I’m ready to ditch the label. Earlier this afternoon, I had read an email from a church member that asked me to join the efforts of No Labels.  I understand where this is coming from. I’m just not sure it’s really the answer. I like words. I need them. I don’t want to give up on them. I just don’t want those words that I struggle to form into a coherent thought about my would-be political or theological identity to flow into a conversation. I don’t want anyone to walk away from the conversation because I say something innocent like, “Yeah, I’m a liberal.” I might not chase after you. OK. I definitely wouldn’t but I’d be sad about the missed opportunity.

Of course, I also know that it’s more than words. I know that those labels reflect ideologies and thoughts that are deeper than the words that we use to explain them. I simply wonder how we can listen to each other without walking away or jumping to conclusions. It’s my prayer as conversations continue in DC tonight, but it’s also my prayer for the church. In the United Church of Christ, where we are defined by an identity of being united and uniting, I hope we can live up to that faith. I hope we pay as careful attention to each other’s words as we do toward understanding our sacred text. More and more, I believe this is why Jesus taught in parables. We would have to engage deeper. We’d have to really listen to what is being said. 

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