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Imago Dei Liberalis

Tips to finding more tender mercies

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o here you are, sitting in your conservative church, and a confused little voice whispers in your heart. Maybe it's Jesus talking to you. Or maybe it's yourself, from back when you were a child in your first Sunday school, as though that innocent babe was just waking up from a long sleep filled with nightmares of Armageddon and fallen angels and getting left behind. "What happened?" the voice asks. "Where's all that love I used to hear about?"

I came to wonder the same thing--how the gentle, forgiving Jesus from my earliest memories could possibly be the same wrathful warlord who counsels the generals of the Religious Right. Judging from the prevailing media exposure, it would seem that over the last few decades, American Christianity has shifted to a lower, meaner calling. It has come to be more about wielding power than nurturing spirituality, more about hate than hope, fear than enlightenment, and more about the dreadfulness of Jesus' death than the wisdom of what he taught.

As one minister described it--it's more about getting one's own self into Heaven than easing some of the Hell we find here on Earth.

And there are so many enemies of Christ to keep track of, yes? Evolutionists, secular humanists, prayer-less public education, abortionists, feminists, environmentalists, Hollywood ... it's a miracle if you have any time left over for doing onto others as you would have them do onto you.

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I suspect you are ready for a change. Some of you, at least. I suspect the burden of this eternal culture war has become too great, too draining, too damaging. I suspect some of you--many of you, that is my hope--would welcome an opportunity to open yourself to the world, rather than forever trying to shut it out. To seek out the goodness in your neighbors, rather than the evil. To involve yourself in the well-being of all God's Creation, rather than condemning so much of it.

In short, to find a liberal Christian attitude, rather than what you have now.

"Liberal" is likely a word you find uncomfortable, but forget that for now. No other alternative term I know carries the depth and breadth of meaning as "liberal," so for the time it takes to read the rest of this piece, please, look beyond the face value of that word to the essence beyond. I've done my best to present a sense of what liberal Christianity is in the Treasure Valley, and the least you can do is put aside your preconceived notions for a few minutes.

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"Living in Idaho, I have been fortunate to have identified a community of respectful folks who are thoughtful in their beliefs and very compassionate--like-minded, regardless of their religious differences, but have a spirit for life and how to express their religion. They don't see religion as something you use to beat each other up."

--The Rev. Lon Bechtel

(King of Glory Lutheran Church)

Where do you go looking for liberal Christianity?

First of all, don't expect the word "liberal" to be on the sign out in front of the church. Liberal clergy, just as liberals in the larger world, have shied away from the description, understanding all too well the negative associations it conjures up in many a mind. The Rev. Linda Nafziger-Meiser (Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship), while not worried about being labeled liberal herself, demonstrates a concern for the members of her church. "I would not want to do anything that would hurt the congregation in the community."

Still, many would prefer to be called "progressive," and the Rev. Mark Davis (First Presbyterian Church) declined even to put it into terms of liberal or conservative, indicating he is perceived in both ways, depending on who's doing the perceiving.

Beyond the question of how to describe themselves, liberal ministers are uncomfortable speaking for their entire congregations, understanding that no congregation is invariably of the same mind on any single matter. Unlike the more fundamentalist leaders we have become accustomed to, they don't feel entitled to act as some sort of spiritual wagonmaster whose lead everyone else must follow. "God wants unity ... not uniformity," says the Rev. Leland Hunefeld (Meridian United Methodist Church).

There is also a feeling among the local clergy I contacted that labels of any sort stand in the way of a useful dialogue.

"The way that words close off conversation, you can define yourself so succinctly in somebody's mind they don't even have to listen to you anymore," explained Bechtel. "I think everybody who knows me knows where I probably stand on most issues. I just don't beat them over the head with it. I don't want to express myself in a way that alienates or draws a line between myself and another person intentionally. But if somebody wants to know what I think or believe on something, I'll be happy to tell them."

In sum, a liberal preacher doesn't necessarily equate to a liberal congregation. Still, it's as good an indication of where the congregation might stand as any. I reached everyone I talked to with the guidance of The Interfaith Alliance (see sidebar). Call it "liberal," call it "progressive," call it "tolerant"... whatever you want to call it ... if that's what you're after, I've no doubt the TIA could help you find it.

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"I think it would be to be transformed by God's love. This is Dave Wettstein's opinion ... ok? But I think it would be the care of the poor, the liberation of the oppressed ... and you don't do this from a Marxist dialectic sort of thing, but from a Biblical sense of justice. After that, once you've been changed by God's love, fed the poor and helped the oppressed, it might be to live with thankfulness.

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--The Rev. David Wettstein (St. Stephen's Episcopal Church)

Do not expect every passion of yours to be shared by your minister. Understand that liberal Christianity is not always the same as liberal politics. They may overlap in large ways, certainly, but don't assume (for example) that just because a minister agrees with you on full ecclesiastical rights for women or the injustice of a war, that he (or she) is with you on the matter of abortion or the church sanction of gay marriage.

Yet there are general characteristics, and arguably the most striking is that liberal clergy are open to sources of wisdom other than the Bible.

"Liberal, progressive Christians wouldn't say that Jesus is the only way to salvation," says retired Presbyterian pastor Ed Keener. "In a fundamentalist congregation, that would be stressed ... that all other religions are misled or that those people will go to Hell unless they find Jesus as their personal savior."

Keener, the president of the board of directors for Interfaith Sanctuary, insists that a Christian duty goes beyond saving people's souls. "It is a genuine interest in humanity. We recognize that we are all in this together, and we cannot be successful as individuals until we recognize our responsibility to everybody."

This doesn't necessarily mean a liberal minister would turn to the Koran or the Vedas for eternal truth. But rather than insisting all answers are in the Bible, a progressive would be willing to look for guidance from other disciplines. The field of psychology, perhaps.

Also ... a liberal preacher would consider him or herself merely a guide, a facilitator--as Hunefeld put it, a teacher--and not your boss.

This is important. If you happen to find yourself on a spiritual quest, either intentionally or by forces beyond your control, who would you rather have traveling by your side ... a learned companion? Or a drill sergeant?

Also ... if the pastor is a woman, it's almost a certainty you're in a relatively liberal church. "Throughout Scriptures, there are references to female leaders," says Renee McCall (lay minister for the Treasure Valley Metropolitan Community Church). "But when televangelists get up there on Sunday morning ... they never speak about the strength of Phoebe. Of Martha. They talk about Mary, but they don't tell the whole story."

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What's worse, the exclusively patriarchal nature of conservative churches seems to be expanding. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, had women in their clergy until 2000, at which point they stopped allowing any new women ministerial rights and started discouraging the existing clergywomen from continuing in the work. Even some of the more progressive organizations are struggling with the role of women in their clergy. So if you're looking for a church that really puts their madres where their mouth is, look for a woman in the pulpit.

Also ... when the preacher preaches directly from the Good Book, what is he or she most likely to preach? Old Testament stuff, or New? David Wettstein speaks of the cherry-picking of Biblical intelligence.

"I see the arc always tending toward the poor, toward justice, toward mercy," Wettstein says. "You have people throwing scripture at each other, but for me, you don't find much balance when people are always quoting the Old Testament. And only certain parts of the Old Testament, at that. And rarely the Gospels. It's one of the things Evangelicals are coming to grips with. If they're going to read the Bible, they've got to read the whole Bible."

Put another way, if the Sermon on the Mount is as fundamental to a minister's understanding of Christianity as the Ten Commandments or the Book of Revelations, you may have found yourself a liberal.

Also, look for a church that strives to connect with the larger world, rather than insulates and isolates itself--and this concept goes far beyond using faux rock music during the service. A liberal church would reach out with a genuine desire to help where help is needed most, be the recipients Christian or not. All too often, conservative churches offer charity, but only if the needy jump through the right hoops to receive it.

And lastly ... forget any preacher that has a TV show of his own or an hour on the radio. If liberal clergy were inclined to participate in show business, this article would be unnecessary. As Hunefeld sees it, there is an obligation to act with humility, to be humble, that is seldom found among the conservative broadcast clergy. If you don't believe me, make a list of all the conservative Christian leaders you know of from their media exposure, and compare it to a list of all the liberal Christian leaders that have made a name for themselves on the airwaves.

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"My own understanding--and let me use the high-flown language of calling--I base this in what Mennonites call 'a high anthropology.' We have a tremendous respect for human beings. We understand every person to carry the Image of God. Imago Dei. That's absolutely central. We think there is something of tremendous value in every individual. When I'm meeting with someone, I think, 'How is this person reflecting the Being of God in a unique way? How can I help that person find, understand, develop and express it.'"

--The Rev. Linda Nafziger-Meiser

How can you know when you've found a more liberal Christianity? This is the toughest question of all because, in all likelihood, no one can answer it for you.

My best guess is, if someone insists he has your answer, you're probably not there yet. It's in the nature of a spiritual quest to be a solo adventure, even when one is questing after the truth of a figure as universal and ubiquitous as Jesus. I can only hint at what I sense--that a liberal understanding of Christ can only come from within, from that curious private essence we call our souls, while a conservative Christian attitude looks with suspicion upon anyone who travels a separate path, apart from the herd.

But, of course, in the best liberal tradition, everybody would describe it differently.

"From personal experience, I know it's possible to have a faith that is not based on being afraid of being condemned, of going to hell, or afraid that God is watching like an angry parent," says Keener. "I think a lot of people would feel that's why it's worth looking into a liberal tradition, to not be fear-based. To not be worried. To not be anxious."

Pam Baldwin (executive director of The Interfaith Alliance) believes it has to do with what she terms "the common good"--that if it's not helping us move to a higher level of justice, mercy and equity for all, then that's not it.

"The wisdom of God in its rich variety," is how Nafziger-Meiser understands it. "That shines through not just in individuals, but in denominations, in cultures, in religions and across the world.

"That's the whole thing with religion. If you set it up as a rigid structure that obstructs people's access to the Divine, then they don't have to take it seriously anymore. But if you set it up so that you (as their minister) open doors so they can move towards it themselves, directly, then it strengthens their personal experience with the Divine."

In his very demeanor, Bechtel portrays it as a blend of mutual dignity and humility.

"(My congregation) understands who I am, and they understand I'm not out to impose my agenda on them and make them think the way I think," says Bechtel. "I want them to know that 'sameness' ... that 'same-thinking' is not required in this place. We can disagree if we do it in a civil, respectful way."

For McCall, it is clear-cut.

"Mainstream religions have gotten so into passing judgment on one another, they've forgotten the words of Jesus," she said. "Jesus said to love one another, unconditionally. To take care of each other. To nurture each other."

Wettstein sees it as a mission far from complete. "I'm hoping we're going to start joining forces to do the things that need to be done, to make a profound change in this world. We say the Lord's Prayer ... you know, 'Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven' ... I believe that. That's what we should be about. It goes back to Dave Wettstein's personal agenda of being transformed by the love of God, caring for the poor, taking care of the oppressed, watching over the earth."

I'm hoping, when you put them all together, you have a fair and comprehensive sense of liberal Christianity. Just remember, look for something not so much cut in stone as whispered in your heart.

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