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.


On Feminism and Being A Man

By any reasonable definition, I suppose I’m a sort of feminist.

You can tell just from the way I say it how reluctant I am to accept the label. You probably mean something positive by it, but it’s always had weird and mostly uncomfortable associations for me.

For a start, I’m a man. I’m pretty secure in my masculinity and don’t often feel the need to engage in all that juvenile machismo nonsense, but even for me, accepting the label of “feminist” has always felt like a non-starter. The very word seems exclusionary, with me and the rest of my gender outside by design. I’m not saying it shouldn’t necessarily be that way; goodness knows there’s been enough exclusion of women in history to justify it, and frankly, what else are you going to call a movement encouraging women to be the strong, capable people they ought to be?

But as a man, the perception is that it isn’t about me or for me. That makes me reluctant to accept the label.

Secondly, the associations I have for the word aren’t helpful. The word brings to mind floods of emasculating scorn from angry women who actively seek out opportunities to take offence. As much a stereotype as that whole “submissive little woman” crap, I know, but it’s what’s in my head. I didn’t put it there on purpose.

Even as I write this, my expectation is that this is going to get taken as an attack on women. I don’t mean for it to be one; if anything it’s me trying to come to terms with a label that technically fits but that I don’t like.

I believe women can and should be strong and capable, and judged for what’s inside rather than whether the packaging is attractive, just like I believe men ought to be. I believe in equal treatment regardless of which kind of reproductive organs you’ve got. That’s the core of feminism as I understand it, but most of me wants to reject the label. In my head, my attitude towards women is just part of me being a real man the way I understand the Scriptures to teach, not something special that needs a special label. Especially not a label I find uncomfortable. Being a man and saying you’re a feminist feels like being a chicken and working at KFC.

There need not and should not be any conflict between the ideas of strong womanhood and strong manhood. I don’t find the idea of strong women somehow threatening to my manhood – why should I? Look at who I married. The fact that I could gain and keep the affections of such a wonderful and powerful woman reflects well on me as a man.

In contrast, it seems like my experience of “feminism” is just the same old dominance games but with women on top. Rejection of things I hold sacred (like marriage), offendedness at polite gestures, double standards, belittling of masculinity, female sexuality as a means to power. I’ve seen all of these first-hand. I want no part of it, thanks.

I reject the idea that male-female relationships are intrinsically connected to the idea of dominance. In the beginning it was not so.

After Adam was made, God brought all the animals to him and Adam named them. But, as the Bible says, there was found “no suitable helper” for him. The idea here is not of a diminutive “Santa’s Little Helper”, but the powerful Ezer Kenegdo. One more powerful who stands alongside to help. It’s also used to describe God’s role with His people. No “little woman” here. God’s original design for the female of the species is that she is at least as powerful as the male.

When God unveils His masterpiece before Adam, there is immediate recognition (and the first poetry in the world): “This is my equal and partner!” Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

The whole domination idiocy doesn’t come in until the Fall. “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”. One of the primary ways sin makes its presence felt is in the realm of human relationships. Without God centring and focusing everything, the need for relationships often grows into a crushing burden even as the relationships themselves turn sour. Alienation and dominance. It’s directed at Eve, but it’s not like men don’t also feel the effects of it, any more than women are insulated from the other curse, directed at the ground and producing failure and frustration.

As far as I can see, patriarchalism is a result of the Fall, not a design feature of the original creation of humanity.

Yes, we’re on this side of the Fall. But we’re also on this side of Calvary. In Christ, we are no more bound to replicate the same fallen patriarchal pattern than we are bound to keep on sinning. The fact that it often seems to be followers of Christ who are on the leading edge of the patriarchal rebellion against God’s original design for human male-female relationships is bizarre and tragic to me.

So yeah, I’m probably a feminist by most people’s definition.  But for me, the practical outworking of what’s called feminism just looks like being a man the way God intended.