Why Jesus was a religious liberal
Mention the word “liberal” and see how many people are turned off by this epithet. What pops into mind is Bill Clinton totting his Bible as he recites scripture like a Southern Baptist evangelist. Some regard Clinton as a liberal who can’t be trusted because he doesn’t mean what he says, displays loose morals, and favors big government helping more shiftless people get on the dole. This picture flashes into many peoples’ minds when “liberal” is uttered. Those who march in peace marches, care little for marriage, like to kill unborn fetuses by abortion but protect prisoners on death row are the “liberals” who make America weak.
Where I grew up, churchgoers regarded religious liberals as outside the bounds of authentic Christianity. A liberal did not practice a variant of the Christian faith, according to my people, but had slipped so far into heresy that no vestige of biblical faith remained. When I announced plans to enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary, the pastor of my home church warned me not to go there. He said, with the voice of Jehovah, that Princeton was part of the liberal East Coast. Princeton taught no Christ-centered faith.
Still, these same defensive Christians proudly sponsored a college that championed a liberal arts spine, which attached itself to Christ’s body in the Church. When church leaders used “liberal” to describe the college, they linked it to orthodox Christianity taught at their college.
One of my English literature professors, Dr. George Harper, made an observation in his church’s newsletter about why the word “liberal” receives both accolades and harsh condemnation. The sound of the word works against it, according to Harper. It “rolls easily off the tongue, with its labials (I-sounds) and the bridging r-sound. The very sound of the word suggests something oily, slippery.” Clintonesque, even.
When we refer to a liberal arts college, we retrieve the fundamental, helpful and good sense from the lineage “liberal” is traced. Its root is in the Latin word “liber,” suggesting a descriptive term for people who desire to grow, branch out, and inquire. Those who are graduated from a liberal arts college are educated so that they act freely, generously. A liberal student’s mind is enlarged. It is judiciously shaped to retrieve the best of the past and broaden what has been given to us.
“Liberal” does not mean lawlessness in the sense of practicing casual sex, questioning authority, protesting government policy and waffling on what’s right or wrong. The liberal mind has confidence that more truth is yet to break forth. We do not parrot what’s been handed down from the past. We question what others assume is fair, honorable and right.
Jesus got himself killed, partly because he was too liberal for the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees protected tradition. They did not believe in angels or life after death because the only Scripture they studied was rooted in the Pentatuch, the first five books of the Bible. In these books, any confidence in angels or life beyond the grave is barely developed, if alluded to at all. The Sadducees regarded the Pharisees as raging liberals who forsook the faith once delivered to the patriarchs. The Pharisees dared believe what the Pentatuch did not clearly teach. Pharisees had their own cute stories about how angels rescued them. They crossed the river of death and, on the other side, they knew that God awaited them in the afterlife.
Sadducees and Pharisees regarded Jesus as off the charts. He went far beyond the liberal notions Pharisees held. He said that their system of laws given to Moses at Mt. Sinai left Judaism like a corpse with the blood sucked out of it. Jesus said he went beyond Judaism’s laws to discover their meaning. Here was Liberalism gone amuck, according to Jewish leaders. Jesus wrote his death warrant when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he promoted himself as the new Moses. “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
The Roosevelts-Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin-irritated opponents with their unabashed liberalism. FDR espoused in 1944 an Economic Bill of Rights-the right to a job, the right to wages that assure food and clothing and recreation, the rights to a home, medical care, education, the right to safeguards the government endorses when we face unemployment, sickness and old age. This sounds like a platform Jesus endorsed in his ministry.
“The liberal party,” wrote Roosevelt, “is a party which believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them. The liberal party insists that the Government has the definite duty to meet new social problems with new social controls-to insure to the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”
The conservative party, Roosevelt contrasted, wants personal gumption to prevail over government intervention. Conservatives counter that “individual initiative and private philanthropy can take care of all situations.” From this comes a political mentality that presses for capitalism without regulation, competition in a free market, a minimalist state, more military spending and business based on self-interest without government control.
In Presbyterian circles we see what happens when the Sadducees/Pharisees mentality is adopted. Presbyterians have shrunk in size as they put their confidence in more rules for ordering themselves. Leaders now plead for forgiveness from their errors: “We know we need to change but we don’t know how. We know that we were once effective, and we don’t know exactly why our structure no longer produces the outcomes we all desire. It is as if we have lost our ability to imagine a reality above and beyond the slow death of attrition we have been suffering for 30 years.” They need a liberal Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister serving with MAJESTY, featuring creative music for worship. MAJESTY can be reached at P.O. Box 8100, Avon, CO 81620. Web site: http://www.majestyministries.org. Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available in local bookstores for “$7.95.