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By Brian Keepers
“I can’t tell if you’re conservative or liberal,” she says to me. The look on her face, the tone in her voice, betray not just confusion but a level of irritation.
I don’t fault her for this. She’s part of a larger society, and a particular culture here in the Midwest, that has taught her to think in categories and labels. To put people in boxes based on where they stand on certain issues or how they cast their ballot at the voting booth. By “conservative” or “liberal,” she means “Republican” or “Democrat.” These are the two choices. The line in the sand is clearly drawn.
I suspect that what she’s really asking, beneath the surface, is this: As my new pastor, can I trust you? Are you safe? It is safe to know you and make myself known to you?
It’s not just her, I do it too. Ascribe labels and categories, and force others to fit into them. We all do it to some extent. It’s the instinct of “tribalism” that has been part of human nature throughout history. Maybe it just seems worse since the 2016 election.
“I’m neither,” I say to her. “I’m a Christian. My allegiance is to Jesus and to his kingdom. I belong to Christ, and so do you.” The words just come out. They sound of truth, taste of truth when I speak them. But I’m not sure how helpful they are. She still looks at me with suspicion, still guarded.
More and more lately, I just don’t know where I fit. That feels really vulnerable to say in such a public space, but it’s how I feel.
I love Jesus more passionately than I ever have since becoming a Christian 27 years ago. I embrace the historic, orthodox faith—a kind of beautiful and generous orthodoxy (to borrow a phrase used by others). I believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative Word of God. I affirm life, from conception to death. I believe God’s design for marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. I want to see marriages strengthened and families flourish.
But I also believe that Jesus cares about people on the margins, and God is with us when we move towards “the other.” I care about advocating for refugees and immigrants, confronting prejudice and racism and discrimination in all its insidious forms, empowering women and standing against sexual abuse and misconduct. I care about reforming the criminal justice system, tackling gun violence, affordable health care for all, and ensuring that tax cuts don’t happen at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable.
So what does that make me—a conservative or a liberal?
The labels just don’t work for me. I’m not sure they’re working for any of us, especially Christians. Too often they just drum up the old culture wars, which get us nowhere.
I have friends who love Jesus, who embrace the Bible as their authority, and who come to different conclusions than me on a whole variety of issues. Rather than moving away from each other, I believe the Spirit calls us to move towards one another. Rather than putting up walls or retreating to our bunkers made up of people who “think just like me,” I believe Jesus calls us to build bridges. “There are times when Christians are called to bridge the gap rather than widen it,” writes Philip Yancey. We are living in such times.
Last week I had the privilege of getting to have coffee with Jerry Sittser (theology professor at Whitworth University), who was in Orange City for a few days. I was processing some of this with him, looking for wisdom on how to be a faithful pastor during times such as these. “How can I lead well,” I asked him, “when we are so quick to label each other and play to fault lines?”
Sittser referenced a second-century letter written to a Roman official named Diognetus. The unknown author wanted to describe the peculiar nature of Christianity to a member of the Roman elite. What we learn from this letter, Sittser explained, is that from its inception, the early church had to figure out what kind of presence it was going to have in the shadow of the Roman Empire. Christians refused two equally perilous extremes: accommodating to the Roman culture on the one hand; and isolating themselves from it on the other hand. Instead, they had the courage to embrace a third way: they infiltrated the culture with a quiet, humble and uncompromising presence—bearing witness to a different king and a different kind of kingdom (all of this is the subject of Sittser’s forthcoming book).
“The task of your generation,” he went on, “is to help reframe the conversations that divide us. Theologically and biblically, reframe them and teach your congregation how to reframe them. Aim for a different target: Christ and the kingdom. Then do all of your ethics and politics from this bullseye.”
And then he said this: “When you are leading faithfully, staying true to the gospel, the Republicans in your congregation should feel uncomfortable. And so should the Democrats. But they should also find each other. They should find each other at the foot of the cross.”
And when he said these words, something deep inside me came alive, something opened up. Yes, that’s it. We all find each other at the foot of the cross. It’s at the cross that we move beyond our labels and categories to genuinely encounter each other. It’s at the cross that we stop trying to fit in and make others fit in (whatever that means), and we discover instead what it truly means to belong—both to God and to one another.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.