I was asked the other day “You call yourself liberal, but what does that mean?”
A loaded question if ever there was one. This is the kind of question that either begins an amazing back and forth of disagreement or reloading weaponry to be about to completely discount anything else said. The kind of question that if genuinely curious is a beautiful question. What is…. liberal. Why do we label certain people with it. Why do some wear it as a badge of pride as the “enlightened”? And why others think that radical is the best word to describe the insane?
Understanding in that moment that my foray into what some would call liberal everything has come off the back of a decade of thought and experience, I knew I couldn’t explain all of it then and there so I began with some easier and less risky subjects. Although in hindsight, it could still have been risky… depending on.. people.
And ignoring what we specifically talked about that night, what it all came down to was how we read the text, history and the influence we give both of those on the now. I prefer being labelled a progressive than a liberal. And not because I hold to any new ideas. But as history, as time rolls on, we also must roll with it or we will be flattened, like a cement roller smoothing roads out. My thought on that night was – I like the idea that ideas can change and grow and respond as opposed to sitting on an idea of “we have always done it this way, so it must be the best way”. A constant review strengthens an idea or gets rid of it as a better one comes in.
So to the text.
The bible has been held by the church and others as a powerful group of books and letters and poetry. Powerful in the sense that it has been influential in the lives and nations of many. Powerful because God the creator either wrote it himself, got others to write it for him, or was somehow involved in the writing by others for him. And depending on where you end up on that spectrum either every single word is important. Some words are important but only to an extent. Or, only the words I or my group deem important depending on how we interpret those words through language, and context and then how we place them in our own time. For example, some of the books of the bible instruct certain people on how to clean themselves. Back in a time where soap was different plumbing was different, hospitals didn’t really exist and the list goes on, these principles could have been quite helpful in keeping many alive. But in our time it is different. A woman doesn’t really need to go outside of the camp or cease moving around when she’s on her period, and a man doesn’t need to be ceremonially cleansed in a large ritual after he has had sex. So even this passage…. is it directly helpful? No. Does it show us something of history and context and Gods hope for life and cleanliness? Yeah.
But then if we read that out of the text, what of many other things that have changed by choice and culture? The zealous among us would hope that we would go back to making women sit still during their periods and making the lepers leave the community. Don’t attempt curing leprosy, because we have to have lepers… it’s in the text. Conservative vs progressive. Then the question needs to be asked how progressive can we be? Is there a “too progressive” level? And once again, it depends on how you treat the text, history, church tradition and current culture.
So, in that car, when I am asked what is liberal… the answer one could be looking for is what level are you at? And what level am I comfortable with you being? If I read in the bible, God murdered 1000s of people because they were unfaithful to him, then some would argue that we have to be comfortable with murdering bad people. But then who determines bad people, because Jesus seems to communicate a love of all, and the possibility that all are able to repent and be forgiven and made new. So if everyone on Noahs boat were bad people labelled good because of their decision to get on the boat, but all those that drowned under the boat are bad people with the ability to become labelled good, then murdering people wouldn’t be great… but God has done so. So do we hold life of “the most” high in value, but specific people we can throw away? Even though they have the capacity to be good. ]
So that all said, I read scripture very progressively. I read-out a lot of old-school thought because of how it lights Jesus. If Jesus is God come in our own language – humanity – to tell us how God is, then much of the OT God, much of the God we make up on our own in our darkest of times is not true. So then Jesus back edits and forward edits much of our understanding of God. And those back edits especially need to rewrite a lot of church tradition. Because church history is painted with the destruction and bloodthirstiness of empire. An empire that Jesus spoke against. So then in our own church gatherings and organisations, we preach revolution and newness like we are reading with fresh eyes and thoughts, whilst constructing oppressive regimes like the Roman empire that put Christ on a cross.
We can’t conservative in the sense that we read the bible like it was written to us. It wasn’t. We are very different from those people and those times, so editing has to be done. And who gets to determine those edits? Us. Those that believe that Jesus unites heaven and earth and injects reality with hope. If our edits change the sense of the words from life to death, or from love to hate or from freedom to oppression, then maybe we are bad editors. As we are hand in hand catalyst redeemers, lights of the world, adopted sons and daughters, we can also be careful editors and users of life and love. Expressed through a book to blood-filled, alive, life-walkers.
Read progressively so more people can belong in eternity.