I Want to be a Liberationist, photo by Steve Pavey
Updated: 3 days ago
It was in college that my relationship with Jesus first began to grow and become a significant part of my life. It was in the summer before my senior year in 1989 (yes, I am THAT old!) when I attended a community-wide revival with some guy I had never heard of speaking - Tony Campolo, that I felt God call me into ministry for the rest of my life. That calling on my life has not stopped driving me and God has not yet given up on me, thanks be to God. It was also in college where I learned what kind of Christian I was; that I learned I was part of a category of Christians called "evangelical Christian." I believed in the power and authority of Scripture to shape and transform us (I still do, by the way), I had a born again experience (though I came to experience life as a series of numerous born-again experiences), and I actively evangelized others to know Jesus as their savior. It was also during this time that I became that there was another essential part of following Jesus; that every follower of Jesus was called into relationship with poor people and people on the margins, that demands working for justice. This flowed directly out of my burgeoning knowledge of Scripture because it is as plain as day to anyone reading the Bible. The funny thing was that most of the other Christians I knew in college accepted every part of following Jesus I just described except for the being immersed in relationships among people living on the margins part. Tony Campolo was the first Christian I had heard really put those parts all together for me and it clicked. It was in 2003, when President George W. Bush lied to the country and led us into an illegal invasion of Iraq to the delight of his evangelical base that I found I could no longer call myself an evangelical. More importantly, I could no longer find my spiritual home in a part of the church that so thoroughly turned their back on the Prince of Peace and instead embraced a war they largely paid no sacrifice for (all the while getting the benefit of tax cuts at the same time). Indeed, it seemed that Bush's tax cuts were passed in order to buy off his evangelical base so no one would raise a fuss. Extra money in your pocket while being rocked to sleep with nationalistic rhetoric can make one feel pretty secure; secure enough to overlook the decimation of another country and culture for no valid reason as well as the use of torture and a rise in hate crimes directed against Muslims. As a doctoral student at a conservative seminary, filled with evangelicals who wholeheartedly supported President Bush, I experienced perhaps the most painful and disillusioning period of my life as a Christian. I felt unmoored. While I remained a steadfast believer in the divinity of Christ - his physical resurrection to this day is one of a very few absolutes I still hold to - I no longer was at home with evangelicals and the massive gaps that separated biblical belief from truly holy praxis. By this I mean the rhetoric of God's love for all people that evangelicals readily proclaimed sounded nice, but it rang hollow as they ostracized LGBTQ people, mindlessly embraced militaristic nationalism, and fused together an American form of Christianity that rewarded the "hard-working" wealthy and penalized the supposedly "lazy" poor. I found evangelicalism more and more to be antithetical to the teachings and life of Jesus. I still do. My shift to the left was not sudden or even unexpected, but my break with evangelicalism was complete. I maintained a firm belief in the shaping and transforming view of Scripture, but was not insistent that knowing or following Jesus was dependent on affirming a list of doctrines. Orthodoxy seemed as relevant as liberalism; all dependent on the eye of the beholder. Yes, I believed (and still do) in things like the miracles in Scripture, the virgin birth, and on and on. But I was not ready to die for those things, or force others to accept the way in which I believed. I just wanted people to know Jesus. I still do. I was becoming more and more at home with people who ascribed to the "L" part of Christianity; liberalism. Still, I also found much in liberal Christianity that did not fit so well, especially the structures and hierarchy on which the institutional church is built (I was a lifelong Methodist at this point). I was continually amazed at how creative many liberals were in their spiritual disciplines and practices, but dismayed by how tied down so many of my liberal siblings were to broken, top-down, arcane institutions that are stiflingly committed to maintaining power for the few and which seem to be empty of innovation. Ecclesially, I believe in the New Testament church; the powerful movement of the Spirit that knits people of all backgrounds, classes, races, and ethnicities together. The community-forming power of the Spirit requires intentionality among those who follow the Spirit, but the community cannot be engineered out of our own muster. It is innately dynamic and organic and while we certainly make choices, there is also something holy in any community reflecting the New Testament church that we cannot simply restructure into existence. Just like we can choose to live among the poor - we must in fact, but we cannot force mutually transforming relationships with people on the margins. That happens not of our choosing. We can only make ourselves present for the opportunity for incarnation to occur. I believe the Spirit moves us to speak and act prophetically. This too cannot be engineered out of our own making. The movement of the Holy Spirit is beyond our control and is not summoned just because a group of institutional church climbers come together a couple of times a year in a five star hotel, eating the best food, remaining sheltered away from the suffering of the world while word-smithing statements in order to sound prophetic. This is institutionalism at its finest: sounding prophetic without the bother of actually living prophetically. Being immersed among people on the margins so the goals, hopes, dreams, and fears of our neighbors are our own is what living prophetically looks like.
I see very few churches that fit nicely in either the liberal or evangelical category living this out. In short, I don't want to be liberal anymore. I do not want to be part of a liberal church anymore and I am long past wanting to be evangelical. Somewhere along the way to liberation the church settled for liberalism and I am tired of settling. I have decided that I want to be a liberationist; pushing beyond the left/right split that paralyzes and creates unmovable entrenchment.
I want to be a liberationist; not content to hear myself sound prophetic, I want to actually follow in the steps of the prophets, incarnated among those who suffer and unflinchingly calling out those who create suffering for others and holding them accountable to be transformed into agents of healing and restoration.
I want to be a liberationist; not content to call for justice, I want to work to achieve justice - concrete change alongside those who suffer.
I want to be a liberationist; to work for the welfare of the most vulnerable as equal to my own. I laid down evangelicalism so many years ago when it failed to be faithful to what God is calling us to be and do. I am now no longer content to be liberal. I want to be faithful. I want to be a liberationist.