You're a Christian, Right? No, I'm a Christian ... Left

A few weeks ago during his talk at the Wild Goose Festival, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis made an important point that is easily forgotten in the heat of the culture wars: The terms "right" and "left" are political categories, not religious categories. And whenever we try to cram our faith into one or the other, we wind up distorting not only our religion but our politics as well.

Observe the current American presidential race, for example. Do you see the distorted religion and politics of which Wallis speaks? Are political leaders educating the public on this problem, or, more likely, do they simply exploit the pretzel twisting to their advantage?

Years ago I heard Tony Campolo describe how he responds to questions about whether he is conservative or liberal. His reply is always the same: "Name the issue!" Tony isn't being cagey. He is actually responding to the question-behind-the-question, which is, "Are you one of us or one of them?"

Tony also recognizes that "conservative" and "liberal" are subjective terms. What's conservative to one person is liberal to another and vice versa. So rather than allow someone to label and dismiss him, Tony prefers to keep his options open so the conversation can continue.

I would take things one step further and argue that discrete categories like "liberal" and "conservative" don't actually exist. When it comes to defining your position re: a certain issue, it's more accurate to think in terms of spectrums. No one is outright conservative or outright liberal. We all live somewhere between these two poles.

But even this perspective can be limiting, because it's one-dimensional; it fails to recognize the complexity of belief. So perhaps we should talk about intersecting spectrums (political, religious, philosophical, moral), because each one influences the other. But even this view fails to capture the dynamic nature of belief, because rarely do we set up permanent camp in one spot on any spectrum. Rather, we vacillate within a given range across multiple spectrums, and sometimes we break camp altogether. So perhaps the most accurate way to define our beliefs is in terms of changing trajectories across multiple spectrums.

Does your head hurt yet?

Such issues have been on my mind lately, because at the Wild Goose Festival I also connected with Charles Toy of the Christian Left. He took home a "Hellbound?" screener and then endorsed the film on the group's Facebook page. He went one step further and asked if we would put their logo on our web site as a sponsor of the film.

I have to admit his request gave me pause. I've spent most of my life among evangelical Christians. Many of them are on the progressive end of the spectrum, but they would hardly be described as on the left. For me, "left" has always meant "liberal." And a "liberal" is someone who isn't seeking to merely reinterpret the tradition, he or she wants to throw it out altogether. And that certainly does not describe me or "Hellbound?" Did I really want such people laying claim to the film? Wouldn't that make people on the right reject it out of hand?

So I did a bit more investigating. Here is a brief excerpt from the Christian Left's web site:

Looking at the life of Jesus we see that Jesus made room for those cut off from the rest of society. Jesus put a name and a face on all who had been forgotten or pushed aside, even the dead. Jesus called us to carry our cross daily and follow him. ... "The Christian Left" -- left hate behind; left prejudice; left callous attitudes; and followed Jesus as HE left the 99 in the fold, to go find the ones who were lost, ignored, excluded, overlooked, abandoned, uncared-for -- all "the least of these." We left hard-heartedness in order to be like the Samaritan who stopped to care for those in need.

Surprisingly, this group isn't necessarily comprised of Christians on the left wing of the political spectrum. They are merely seeking to leave behind a form of Christianity that has departed from the faith Christ founded. In that sense, you could say they are a staunchly conservative group. They would probably argue that right wing Christians are the true liberals, because they are the ones who have broken from tradition. In fact, they do just that:

Unfortunately in this country today, we have a sort of spiritual revival of the Pharisees -- people who don't want to practice love, grace, or compassion, but would rather try to bury people under legalistic demands that they themselves aren't capable of keeping. Culturally crusading right-wing Christians have substituted the Gospel of Jesus Christ for a Gospel of Morality. They've made it more about following rules than loving God ... and loving their fellow brothers and sisters. This is unacceptable.

See how quickly our discrete religious/political categories break down? Another excerpt:

Love God and love people. Forgive people over and over again, as you have been forgiven by God over and over again. Show mercy, as you have been shown mercy by God. Help the weak, the sick, the depressed, the poor, the jailed, the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcast -- for one day you could be weak, sick, depressed, poor, jailed, oppressed, marginalized, outcast. It is also the only reasonable response to God's overwhelming grace -- sharing the same grace with the world.

This doesn't sound partisan at all. Instead, it seems to redraw the lines entirely. Instead of right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, it's not vs. anyone at all. Rather, it's for something -- a more charitable and just society. Who doesn't want that?

So perhaps I shouldn't be too concerned if people want to cram "Hellbound?" into a left wing box. If that simply means the movie is working to transcend not only hatred and injustice but also a language of engagement that seems hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, then count me in.