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.


Celebration of Creativity


The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that He’s Creator. Genesis 1:1 tells us that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The first chapter of Genesis goes on to talk about God making the various parts of the cosmos, culminating in His making of human beings, “in the image of God”, and “male and female”.

While the ability to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and to breathe into the nostrils the breath of life, are solely Divine attributes, the implication of the culmination of God’s creative act is that creativity is directly tied to the image of God.

Human beings are limitlessly inventive. We make stuff up; we tell stories, we draw, paint and sculpt. We invent writing systems and write books upon books; we find new and better ways of harnessing the resources of the world in which we live. Bronze gives way to iron, which in turn gives way to steel, which in turn gives way to plastic and concrete and all manner of new materials, which in their turn give way to more “natural” materials. We write computer programs to do everything from entertain us to sending people to the moon.

The sheer pace of modern technological development is somewhat frightening. Computers are almost obsolete as soon as they hit the market. Skills which once led to high status are now deemed almost useless, or restricted to limited niche work.

We’re makers. It’s who we are.

Part of my problem with the evolutionary model of human development is that it seems to rest on the assumption that human creativity was much more limited in the past.

Like the discovery of metal-smelting, for instance. They tell us that they think the first metal smelted from ore was more or less accidental. Someone’s cooking fire got hot enough to release metal (probably copper or something else with a low melting point) from the rocks surrounding the fire.

I can buy that, but someone is going to observe the lumps of metal cooling in the ashes and think “that’s cool! I wonder if it would do it again?”

I find it practically inconceivable that people whom scientists assure us were every bit as intelligent as we are didn’t figure out some of this stuff sooner than anyone thinks.

“I wonder what happens if…” and “Will it do it again?” are part of what make us human.

Creativity is more than just figuring things out, however. Human inventiveness has never been confined to problem-solving; someone at Lascaux worked out that if they daubed different colours of earth on the cave walls, they could make some startling pictures. Someone imagined that this bison longbone would look great carved into a fish shape. Someone wanted to personalise their clay pot with a design pressed into the outside.

It’s what people do. It’s what God designed people to do.

There’s not a single human culture that doesn’t make some kind of art, whether it’s a Rembrandt oil painting or a Moai stone head on Easter Island. Cathedral ceiling or Homeric epic, it’s the image of God at work.

It bothers me that Christians are often some of the least creative people around. We’ve been redeemed from the curse of the fall to embody, in Christ, God’s original design for humanity. How can we be as uncreative as we sometimes are?

As Protestants, we distance ourselves from visual art in our churches, fearing that it smacks of idolatry. Certainly that’s a danger, but there’s an equal danger in our stark utilitarianism – God makes things beautiful; it’s pagan magical thinking that is only concerned with what use something is.

Our Christian storytelling is too often derivative, and we feel like we need to put massive labels over everything and make our moral point with a sledgehammer otherwise it isn’t Christian. We become sceptical or nervous of a tale featuring a witch, even as an adversary, lest we stray into pagan magic.

It’s a story. Good versus evil. Treat it on its own terms; look at the underlying Story, not the ornamental details. The symbolism may not be what we’re used to, but Jesus wasn’t afraid to use even serpent imagery for Himself (John 3:14).

Much has been made of the fact that in the Bible account, the various arts of metalworking, animal husbandry and music all stem from Lamech’s children in the line of Cain. Tubalcain, the father of metalworking, in particular turns up as the chief adversary in the recent Noah film, and his metalworking arts are turned to the despoliation of God’s green earth.

I see these arts’ placement as originating in the line of Cain as more like a salutary reminder that even the most wicked are still made in God’s image. Babylon was desperately wicked and has become a byword for opposition to righteousness, yet it was Babylon that made the famous Hanging Gardens.

And if the image of God expressed in the artistic and creative impulse is still present, then surely there is hope. After all, Christ died to restore the broken image.