He went on to argue that the divisions within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seemed beyond bridging the gap from his perspective, and perhaps the best we could do was to acknowledge how we disagree and live as peacefully with one another as possible. He would go so far as to say that this was possible between two friends, but he didn’t see how it was possible with a denomination; that has made him more and more cynical.
As I am prone to do at times, I decided to play the part of devil’s advocate and I made a very simple statement. It was this: “I guess I am a ‘liberal,’ but I’m an ‘evangelical liberal.’”
He quickly replied, “That’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I believe in telling the Good News of Jesus Christ just as much as you do in both my words and actions. I’m not afraid of using the ‘E’ word at all.”
“But you must mean,” he insisted, “that you are a ‘liberal evangelical.’”
“No,” I said. “I meant exactly what I said in describing myself.”
He shook his head and sighed. “I guess I just don’t get it.”
For me that says it all. None of us “get it” when we feel we are compelled to use old, outdated, culturally freighted, politically captive, relatively meaningless labels. Setting us up as a nation, or as a denomination of people who are on the “left” or the “right,” or, God forbid, some of those fence sitters in the middle who can fall either way on a particular issue, only compounds our focusing on single issues that tend to divide us rather than to unite us in the love of Christ.
Now I know this is no new news for any of us Presbyterians. On the gay and lesbian ordination issue, we’ve been tearing ourselves apart piece-by-piece for more than thirty years. Underlying that issue though, is a far greater divide that predates the anxious hearts we carry within us as the people of God. It’s a fear lodged in how to agree to disagree in love, not in anger. Our sinful inflexibility seems most obvious when we single out a specific concern on which we passionately disagree. Our basic instinct is to assume that we will not like people with whom we disagree, even if we do not know them well, or for that matter, actually know them at all. The true worry for some of us who have weathered the storms of our church fights over the last several decades is how to learn a new way of falling in love with one another as the church all over again. The times in our history may not reflect many periods when we accomplished such a miracle, but there are a few. Certainly the Apostle Paul understood how difficult it is to truly love one another, stay united, still disagree, but to share in common our conviction to follow the Christ who even challenged us to love our enemies.
I believe that one of the ways of following the mandate of Christ’s commandment to love as we have been loved may be found in dispensing with the labels. What would it be like if we suspended looking to the left or right and looked straight forward into God’s future? What would it be like if we trashed all the labels like “liberal” and “conservative,” and started thinking of ourselves as “disciples”? What would it be like if we suspended our arguments, our amendments, our votes, and simply lived together in peace and harmony?
Yeah … yeah … I know I sound like a “60s liberal,” a fool, or an idealist who has his head in the clouds. My more pragmatic friends accuse me of that regularly. But I can’t quite let it go because I believe the Gospel is about living our way as flawed human creatures into a more ideal world. Heaven come to earth? Realized eschatology? Things “on earth as they are in heaven”? Yes.
Glimpsing heaven in our midst with something like the ideals that Calvin must have yearned for in Geneva. No utopia, for Calvin was a realist, but a more perfect world that is modeled on a more perfect community of people joined together in Christ that we call “the Church.”
What purpose do our labels serve? They do not seem to bring us together, but to divide us. They certainly aren’t usually very clear, as my discussion with my dear friend indicates. I was not simply playing with words in our conversation, but trying to make a point about how confusing and distorting labeling one another can be. Admittedly it feels nice to us human beings to nest together as “birds of a feather” do. It’s usually more comfortable, less stressful, and even more fun to agree. But is that our calling in a divided world and a divided church to have to agree with one another? Are we not called to bear the burdens of the Gospel that Jesus warned would not be easy? If our labeling serves no good purpose under the mandates of the Gospel, then why do we persist in doing so?
What if we tried on some new behaviors and ways of thinking? I am suggesting that every time we catch ourselves thinking, I really don’t want to be around him or her; I don’t like how they feel and how they think, that we stopped dead in our tracks and said, “Maybe I should get to know them better.” I am also suggesting that we resist the restless urge to stick a label on someone and avoid assumptions we all know “make an ass out of you and me.” I am suggesting that we practice the power of positive thinking, live the adage that if we don’t have something good to say about someone else, we don’t say anything at all; that we look hard at ourselves in that foggy mirror in which Paul said we could only see dimly. Maybe, just maybe, with God’s help, we can let the labels go once and for all!
Phil Leftwich is executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. Franklin, Tenn.