Most people would call me a conservative, and I can understand why. I believe in absolute truth, and I believe Jesus Christ is Truth. I believe and follow several beliefs and standards often associated with conservatism, particularly in American politics. If a survey or research project counts me amongst conservatives, I don’t bat an eye.
But I hate that word. When I hear it in the church, I involuntarily cringe. Why? Because words are powerful. Words don’t just describe; they have the power to create. The ancient Jews knew this. Look at Genesis 1, whose author tells us of God’s creative power through words. Or a Hebrew lexicon, which will reveal one particular Hebrew word can mean “word” or “thing.” Even today, just look at how Obamacare and the ACA, two names for the same law, affect perceptions of that law. The right or wrong word makes all the difference between healing and injury. And the word “conservative” has been hamstringing the church.
Let’s look at “conservative.” The first definition at dictionary.com tells us conservative entities are “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” Merriam-Webster offers an adjectival meaning of conservative as, “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.”. And Wikipedia tells us, “Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to ‘the way things were'”. Based on personal observation, the preferred social order to be returned to is usually somewhere between 50 and 250 years ago. The highlights of this era, in the US alone, include slavery, racist laws, unChristlike treatment of women, and debtors’ prisons. Today’s social order isn’t much better, rife with the same old problems redressed behind shiny new veneers and viewed through iPads instead of pamphlets and newsreels. What exactly is it we’re so excited about bringing back or keeping?
Contrast those descriptions with what we see in Scripture. We see a Christ who threatens the existing unjust and impious social order, flipping tables and driving it out. This Christ tells us His Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a small thing capable of quickly overwhelming a garden (If Jesus was in the South today, would He compare His Kingdom to kudzu?). He tells us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Kingdom. Here’s the thing about gates: they are inherently defensive. They don’t move. They keep. They preserve. They conserve.
Sometime in the past, keeping the faith became confused with keeping the social order. Much to the delight of politicians and other “powers that be”, many Western Christians have become convinced that holding beliefs that look conservative also means conserving the social order, even if the preferred social order contains horrid injustice in the eyes of God. Like the Pharisees, we strive after the Law, but the poor starve, God’s beautiful Creation is scarred by our machinations, and the marginalized are told they should stay in their ghetto until they look like us. We forget that those hated by American conservatism are those with whom Christ lived and ate. I believe there are many commands from Christ that look conservative, but when the label overtakes the loving person of Christ, it becomes an idol. Our label becomes our god, and the god Conservatism demands we murder God’s hope, love, and transformation on its altar.
Being labeled, by ourselves or by the world, as conservative is not a free pass to neglect to love our gay, Muslim, atheist, homeless, black, white, racist, or any other kind of neighbor just because someone might think we’re liberal, nor does it free us from acting on that love. Being labeled conservative does not get us out of caring for the Creation that God made out of love for us just because “progressives do that hippie stuff.” Being labeled as conservative does not get us out of acting like Jesus of Nazareth, who refused to be held back or limited by the political labels thrown at Him.
Why do I hate being conservative by the world’s standards? Because there is more to Christ than an ideology, there is a person and there is love. There is hope and promise for a better world. And I’m terrified of losing Him in the fog of America’s culture war.