I am not a label; I am a free man!

There are some blogs I still seem to follow even though I seldom agree with very much they have to say.

That fact seems especially apt when I come to this post, purporting to expound the reasons why liberals and conservatives (or Muslims and Christians, or whoever and whoever else) can’t “just get along”.

The author’s contention seems to be that because it is impossible for people who hold different values to have any real fellowship, liberals and conservatives exist in a natural state of undeclared war one with another. A liberal cannot have conservative friends, nor vice versa, because they want and value different, opposing things. Referring to the popular bumper sticker, she calls the idea that we can all get along the “COEXIST fallacy”.

While I take the point that “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3), I have to take issue with what seems like an astonishing amount of missing the point and unreasonable pigeonholing.

Maybe I’ve read too much into what she’s saying, but the implication that rather than friendship, the proper response of liberals and conservatives to each other is hostility sets my teeth on edge. There is a large field existing between the sort of fellowship she rightly says is unlikely if not impossible and the sort of ongoing conflict that she seems to imply is the only other possible alternative. For example, I’m constantly amazed at how well I get on with my father-in-law when we have such different basic approaches to the world. His political priorities are often worlds apart from my own, yet we both love and serve the Lord Jesus. We share the values of truth, justice, mercy, peace, faith and integrity. We don’t talk politics, because neither of us really approve of throwing our pearls before swine, metaphorically speaking, and our relationship is too important to jeopardise by meaningless arguments about peripheral issues like economic policy.

And this leads neatly on to what I was saying about unreasonable pigeonholing.

Throughout the post, the author maintains a very rigid idea of “Christians don’t want abortion”, “Muslims want Sharia law”, “liberals hold these values”, “conservatives hold these values”. I have a big problem with this monolithic understanding of different groups. In the real world, people are usually more complicated than that.

As a defining trait of the followers of the Saviour I claim, I have to say I find “Christians don’t want abortion” to be a very limited summary statement. Is that truly what we think defines a Christian? Even politically? What about “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? Nope, apparently what defines “Christian” politics is whether you oppose abortion or not.

Now, your understanding of what “doing justice and loving mercy” looks like in practice may very well lead you to oppose abortion-on-demand as a matter of motherly convenience (in fact, I’d say that it had better!), but the same values of justice and mercy ought to move you to stand for “liberal” causes like wage equality, treating God’s clean earth with respect and raising up the poor as well.

I can get along with my father-in-law even though he’s an arch-conservative while I lean left, because we do hold the really fundamental values in common. We only differ on the outworking of those values.

And that’s the thing. Every human being is a mixed bag of different values, and not everyone that’s a “conservative” is exactly the same.

For some conservatives, their Second Amendment rights are the really important thing, for others, it’s keeping the government out of as much as possible, or the issue of abortion, or opposition to the supposed “organised liberal attack on traditional family values”, whatever that really means. “Conservative” as a political category in a monochromatic political spectrum like America is of necessity a broad term, and people vote for conservative politicians for all kinds of reasons. Someone for whom Second Amendment rights are the big end-all issue is going to look upon someone who might be in favour of rational enforcement of reasonable measures to make it more difficult for criminals to access firearms, for example, as insufficiently conservative or even downright liberal, even if that person favours Republican laissez-faire capitalistic economic policy, opposes abortion with a vehement passion and believes wholeheartedly in what are called traditional family values.

That same person may view the first hypothetical individual as dangerously liberal becayse they believe that in certain circumstances abortion might be the least worst option. They’re both considered “conservatives”, but their priorities, while both lying in the general sphere of values labeled “conservative”, are different.

The same is true of liberals. If conservatism is not a monolith of identical clones espousing one single constant viewpoint, neither is liberalism. I lean left in terms of economic policy. I live and move closer to the bottom of the economic ladder than the top, and I see conservative economics as more than a little unjust, unfairly favouring the already-wealthy and with nothing in place to protect the little guy from large businesses’ predation and economic bullying. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I encourage homosexual practice or support abortion-on-demand or favour policies that deny Christians the right to the free expression of their faith or whatever else it is you think this monolithic thing called “liberals” believes.

I know plenty of Muslims that favour Western-style democracy and don’t want Sharia law. I’ve met people who styled themselves Muslims in the former Soviet Union who didn’t believe in God. Yeah, Muslim atheists. I’ve encountered Buddhist monks in Thailand who were more interested in the Soccer Football World Cup than in the practice of their religion.

What the “COEXIST” bumper sticker is saying is that we’re all human beings, complex mixes of values and beliefs, some of which conflict while others mesh. I share with Muslims a belief that there is only one God who exists as a Person, not an impersonal Force or spirit, I share with atheists the understanding that pagan gods aren’t real gods, I share with Hindus the understanding that ultimate reality is spiritual and there is more to life than the material world.

Labels are a convenience, not an absolute defining parameter. Particularly ones like “liberal” and “conservative” which exist on a spectrum and define two general areas of it. Witness current political difficulties between the Republican establishment, the Freedom Caucus and the White House, or look at the clashes between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. People aren’t their labels, when you vote Republican you aren’t immediately stamped into the “correct” shape like a coin taking on its imprint. With all due respect to the American Green Party and the Libertarians, they aren’t going to be forming a government any time soon and many people who might have a lot in common with their party outlook are going to see a vote for them as a waste. The political establishment on both sides has a lot invested in maintaining the dual-party status quo, because they fear the loss of their members to other “fringe” parties.

“Liberals” and “conservatives” can get along and even be friends, if they remember their common ground. As a more-or-less liberal-leaning centrist in Texas (or in other words, anyone even slightly to the left of the Ferengi from Star Trek: The Next Generation), I find my nose constantly ground in the fact that most people around here don’t share my political priorities. And yet that doesn’t mean I have no friends. There are people at my church with whom I can’t have a political discussion without feeling myself concerned about their faith, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. And yet I know they love and trust the Lord, even if it doesn’t look the same as my own faith’s political outworking.  We have that much in common.

Labels encourage divisiveness, an “us against them” mentality which sees another person not as a human being lovingly created in the image of a good God, maybe flawed and fallen and sinful and mistaken, but bearing that divine imprint nonetheless, but as a thing, a collective, with values utterly opposed to ours. There can be no compromise or coexistence; neither’s beliefs can exist without the destruction of the other. To quote an obscure sci-fi television series, “the classic pattern for war”.

And yet, aren’t we all flawed and fallen and sinful and mistaken? And aren’t we all loved by God nonetheless, even in our unregenerate state, dead in our sins? We none of us earned our way into God’s favour; we have no call to be waging metaphysical total war against other people He loves.

There isn’t some monolithic construct called “Islam” any more than there’s a monolithic construct called “Christianity”; as Christians we believe the same body of core doctrines, but within that we are free to have differing viewpoints about non-core issues like whether it’s possible to genuinely believe and then fall away or which English translation of the Bible is best.  Individual Muslims vary a lot in their actual functioning beliefs depending on where they are from, how educated they are, lots of factors.

Let’s get past the labels, and particularly past the tendency to treat the label as a uniform undifferentiated mass. As Christians we should know better: the Christ-following community is after all described as a body. Bodies are made up of organs, different types of cells doing different jobs to make the whole thing function. A mass of uniform undifferentiated tissue is what we call a cancer. And people aren’t cancers.


5 thoughts on “I am not a label; I am a free man!

  1. Excellent post! I find the idea that people of differing ideologies can’t coexist to be a very stupid one, to put it bluntly. Meaning no offense to anyone, of course. Everyone on this planet is different, whether we like it or not, and insisting differences prevent coexistence is absolutely ludicrous and ultimately societally suicidal. I do believe there are certain issues that deserve to be stood up for, but just because I stand up for my beliefs doesn’t mean I have to knock down everyone else because of theirs. If I have a right to stand up, shouldn’t everyone else? And just because we’re all standing up and professing our beliefs doesn’t mean we inherently have to come to blows. Once again, on even the most basic level we’re all unique and different individuals, and once we accept that and stop trying to pretend we’re clones we’ll realize conflict is neither inherent nor inevitable. Even if we all followed the same brand of the same ideology to the letter, we’d still be different in some way or another, and we could still find an excuse for factionalism and division. But if we’d just accept we’re all unavoidably different as individuals and embrace that, there would be no need for conflict or division.

    • Exactly. If we can’t at least coexist with people that are different, then we have no society.
      We’re all different, unique, more than the simplistic labels that are put on us.
      I think that was what got me most in the original article: the unstated blind assumption that everyone in a particular group has exactly the same views.

  2. Thanks for sharing Geoff. Well said! I find that I can be friends with people who have absolutely opposite beliefs/political opinions to me – as long as they are willing to accept the differences. It’s when someone tries to *force* their views on me that it gets difficult. It’s ok to disagree and great to talk about each other’s point of view – but not ok to be ” my way or the highway “

  3. The problem with this sort of amiable conciliation is that it has a lot of predicates in the tact of daily life, a life in which people must get along to simply survive. As societies break down under desperate pressures, as more people run against walls that can’t be nudged or gulfs that can’t be bridged, then eventually something must give. Friendship across strongly held abstract beliefs is one thing. But when someone is actively working to destroy the foundations of what one needs to live… I don’t see how friendship can or should endure that. And that’s where we increasingly are as a society.

    As a queer woman, conservatives have stated in numerous planks in language both subtle and candid that they don’t want my life to exist. They refuse me the space for my family to exist, to thrive, and actively seek to eliminate that foundation. That’s an unbridgeable chasm. No friendship can survive that, if I’m at all self respecting. Eventually the respect of reticence and dance of nuance aren’t enough. Civil silence turns to suffocating egg shells. And no one should have to live like that.

    • Hi Emily, thanks for commenting.
      I recognise where you’re coming from – or at least, I hope I do – and I’m sorry about what I have to acknowledge are sort of my people. I’m a follower of Jesus and try to take that seriously. It saddens me that Christians in particular can’t seem to look at another person without seeing labels – conservative, liberal, straight, queer, them, us. I own my own fault in this; it’s a very human tendency , but it’s not helpful. If all you (or anyone else) are is a label to me, no wonder the world is full of “walls that can’t be nudged or gulfs that can’t be bridged”.
      The sad irony is that this wasn’t how Jesus seems to have operated at all. Religious teachers, Pharisees, Roman collaborator tax collectors, terrorist Zealots, women, men, “righteous”, “sinners” – every time you see him interacting with someone he treats them with dignity and respect – especially the marginalised.
      I just wish my people could get back to that pattern.

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