I just finished speaking at a historic week-long annual Christian conference. I met my future wife while both of us served on staff at the conference’s 1979 high school camp and we helped lead subsequent camps for teens and then career-young-adults. But although we went to the main adult conference a few times, we never made it an annual pilgrimage like so many others did. So when the sponsoring organization invited me to speak at the adult camp in 2012, I was surprised and excited to bring my take on the book of Hosea to the conferees. From the feedback I received, many of them appreciated how I had them wrestle with being “Gomer,” the chronically unfaithful wife of the long-suffering prophet Hosea. So later that same year, I was invited to come back as one of the main preachers in Summer 2014. When I was told that Dr. Tony Campolo was going to be the other speaker, I immediately agreed. After all, Campolo has inspired me for decades with his powerful prophetic messages, thoughtful books and blogs, and his heroic example of loving the poor and the despised. Besides, I don’t know of too many other preachers (especially Asian American ones like me) who wouldn’t feel intimidated to share the pulpit with Tony. Let’s just say that however overwhelmed I was feeling, I was much more excited to spend a week with one of my all-time heroes and fellow American Baptist.
Apparently the choice of Tony and I for this summer’s conference raised eyebrows among some conservative Asian American pastors and Christians. Some labeled us both as “Emergent” Christians (post-Modern, ‘too liberal’) and shared their grave concerns with the parent organization. Despite these accusations and their supporting ‘evidence’ the executive director and his trustees weren’t convinced that we were surreptitious members of this sometimes controversial recent branch of Christianity. They stood by their selection of us both, believing that many new folks would want to come hear us open God’s Word that week.
Tony had graciously submitted himself to hyper-scrutiny by those concerned, He answered all their questions patiently and continued to assert his unwavering beliefs in the critical tenets of orthodox Christianity. This, however, didn’t allay the concerns and fears of our critics. So, in a move that disappointed many, Campolo humbly withdrew from speaking. At 79 yoa, he simply didn’t want to put any more energy and time into defending himself and his faith, and he didn’t want to be a distraction for the conference.
What most didn’t know until I revealed it in my last message was that I too had rescinded my acceptance to speak. I also didn’t want to continue to be a lightning rod and I also didn’t want the ED and his board to feel trapped if they changed their mind but were afraid to offend me or hurt my feelings. I wrote, “I still feel that God has given me something to say that week that’s important, but I don’t have to speak. Please pray about it some more. If you then still want me to speak, I will. But don’t feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place.” They did pray about it more and ultimately affirmed that they still wanted me to speak. I’m sure that this decision wasn’t reached without a great amount of soul-searching, because they knew that some of their mainstay churches were probably going to ‘boycott’ this year’s conference, which meant that their organization was going to have to absorb a gigantic hit to their wallet. Even though Campolo had backed out and even though they’d replaced him with someone who was completely without controversy, they were being told by these conservative churches that the original choice of Tony and me was a disturbing sign that they were becoming “too liberal.”
One of my main focal points all week was on the Pharisees in the New Testament. Knowing full well what the sponsoring group was being accused of, I started asking this question of various people during our conversations about all the controversy leading up to last week: “Were the Pharisees conservative or liberal?” The obvious answer is that they were conservative, and proudly so. They prided themselves on their careful study of Jewish Scripture, their meticulous adherence to the Jewish moral code, and assumed therefore that they were much closer to YHWH God than tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes. Yet Jesus labeled them unbecoming things like broods of poisonous snakes, white-washed tombs, and blind hypocrites. He told them stories designed to jolt them to realize that they were much farther from YHWH God than most of the other sinners that they regularly condemned. According to Jesus, being conservative was clearly NOT the safest thing in the world to be.
I followed up with this query: “And did the Pharisees think Jesus was conservative or liberal?” Here again, the answer is obvious. They believed that Jesus was far and away a liberal and they branded him with unflattering labels like “blasphemer” and “heretic.” When the Apostle Paul was still a proudly conservative Pharisee (named Saul), he even went after early followers of Jesus, persecuting and pounding them, even putting some to death. While Jesus never claimed to be ‘liberal,’ his actions declared that God was far less restrictive with his love and mercy than the avowed conservatives of his day. While many conservative Christians today would never stick the dreaded “L” tag on Jesus, an honest reading of the Gospels shows that the Pharisees clearly tagged Jesus as a liberal.
So when did the meaning of the two labels get flip-flopped? When did being a conservative Christian automatically come to imply standing in the safest place, occupying the holiest seats closest to God’s throne, being the ones most clearly in the possession of Truth? The record of the Gospels makes the exact opposite case, yet untold numbers of Christians today proudly identify as conservatives and also use being conservative as God’s standard for truth and being above reproach.
I’m really not a liberal Christian, but I’m also no longer a proud and defiant conservative one. And because I no longer wrap myself in all the trappings of conservatism, I’m not surprised when some of my more conservative Christian sisters and brothers (mainly the males, though), are suspicious or even critical of me. Or Campolo. You see, in these circles, if you’re not conservative, then you’re in danger of sliding down the slippery slopes of liberalism. I will be the first to agree that it definitely is possible to become “too liberal” but what I hardly ever hear is that it’s also just as possible (and just as dangerous, if not more) to become “too conservative.” Both extremes can become too self-righteous and too dogmatic, even vicious. Which is why I firmly believe we need to have churches, denominations, organizations, and conferences that have a healthy combination of conservatives and liberals in them. Both have blind spots that are only apparent to non-partisans.
However, I believe that this will only occur when those more right of center are convinced that being conservative doesn’t automatically mean being safe, right, and closer to God than being liberal. True and needed convicted civility among conservative and liberal Christians can’t and won’t occur so long as both sides view the other as being far from God and God’s truth. And I think it would grease the rails of reconciliation greatly if more conservative Christians stopped putting more liberal ones on the defensive. I’m pretty sure Jesus said to focus on the log in our own eyes instead of pointing out the sawdust in our neighbor’s eye.