By Bill Mefford, picture by CathNewsUSA
It was in college that my relationship with Jesus first began to grow and become a significant part of my life. It was in the summer before my senior year when I attended a community-wide revival with some guy I had never heard of speaking - Tony Campolo, that I felt God call me into ministry for the rest of my life. And though I do not work for a local church at present, I have not given up that call on my life and God has not yet given up on me, thanks be to God.
It was also in college where I learned what kind of Christian I was. I was an evangelical Christian. I believed in the power and authority of Scripture to shape and transform us, I had a born again experience (though I came to believe that life often holds numerous born-again experiences), and I actively evangelized others to know Jesus as their savior. It was also during this time that I became convinced that every follower of Jesus was called into relationship with the poor and into the work of justice and service. This flowed directly out of my reverence for Scripture because it was as plain as day. In fact, ministry among those on the margins seemed as imperative as acknowledging the importance of Scripture or having a born-again experience.
I wasn't sure of other "kinds" of Christians; I just knew that I was an evangelical Christian, as were all of my friends. As far as I knew, this was the "right" kind of Christianity.
It was in 2003, when President George W. Bush lied to the country and led us into an illegal invasion of Iraq to the delight of his evangelical base that I found I could no longer call myself an evangelical. More importantly, I could no longer find my spiritual home in a part of the church that so thoroughly turned their back on the Prince of Peace and instead embraced a war they paid no sacrifice for. Indeed, Bush's tax cuts, implemented at the same time as plunging the country into two wars with massive losses of life, assured that his evangelical base would not raise a fuss. Extra money in your pocket with nationalist dominance in the world makes one feel pretty secure and after 9/11, that's what most evangelicals wanted, peace and justice be damned.
As a doctoral student at a conservative seminary, filled with evangelicals who wholeheartedly supported President Bush, I experienced perhaps the most painful and disillusioning period of my life as a Christian. I felt unmoored. While I remained a steadfast believer in the divinity of Christ - his physical resurrection to this today is one of a very few absolutes I hold to - I no longer was at home with evangelicals and saw the massive gaps that separated biblical belief from truly holy praxis. By this I mean the rhetoric of God's love for all people that evangelicals readily proclaimed sounded nice, but it rang hollow as they ostracized LGBTQ people, mindlessly embraced militaristic nationalism, and fused together an American form of Christianity that rewarded the "hard-working" wealthy and penalized the supposedly "lazy" poor. I found evangelicalism more and more to be antithetical to the gospels. I still do.
My shift to the left was not sudden or even unexpected, but my break with evangelicalism was complete. I maintained a firm belief in the shaping and transforming view of Scripture, but was not insistent that knowing or following Jesus was dependent on affirming a list of doctrines. Orthodoxy seemed as relevant as liberalism; all dependent on the eye of the beholder. Yes, I believed (and still do) in things like the miracles in Scripture, the virgin birth, and on and on. But I was not ready to die for those things, or force others to accept the way in which I believed. I just wanted people to know Jesus. I still do.
So, much of liberalism fit me. But much did not, especially the structures and hierarchy on which the institutional church is built. I was continually amazed at how creative many liberals were in their spiritual disciplines and practices, but how tied down they were to broken, top-down, arcane institutions that are stiflingly committed to maintaining power for the few and which seem to be empty of innovation.
Ecclesially, I believe in the New Testament church; the powerful movement of the Spirit that knits people of all backgrounds, classes, races, and ethnicities together. The community-forming power of the Spirit requires intentionality among those who follow the Spirit, but the community cannot be engineered. It is innately dynamic and organic. Just like we can choose to live among the poor - we must in fact, but we cannot force mutually transforming relationships with people on the margins. That happens not of our choosing.
I believe the Spirit moves us to speak and act prophetically. This too cannot be engineered out of our own making. The movement of the Holy Spirit is beyond our control and is not summoned just because a group of institutional church climbers come together a couple of times a year in a five star hotel, eating the best food, remaining sheltered away from the suffering of the world while word-smithing statements in order to sound prophetic. This is institutionalism at its finest: sounding prophetic without the bother of actually living prophetically.
I believe in the priesthood of all believers, not a priesthood of some believers who are given special treatment, automatic lifetime appointments, and who then take on all of the values of Northern capitalism as they climb the institutional ladder accruing higher prestige, bigger titles, larger churches, and of course, more money. I believe in the priesthood of all believers - that all followers of Jesus are called and gifted for service that manifests in wildly different forms but all of which is of equal value.
I believe that the church is not called to exist, but to serve and bring about concrete change; refashioning and transforming the world into the way in which God dreams for it to be. I believe that the church is called to do something more than fight for its own relevance or even its own existence. I believe the church is called to redemptively utilize our own access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied.
In short, I don't want to be liberal anymore. I do not want to be part of a liberal church anymore. Somewhere along the way to liberation the church settled for liberalism and I am tired of settling.
I have decided that I want to be a liberationist; pushing beyond the left/right split that paralyzes and creates unmovable entrenchment. I want to be a liberationist; not content to hear myself sound prophetic, I want to actually follow in the steps of the prophets, incarnated among those who suffer and unflinchingly calling out those who create suffering for others and holding them accountable to be transformed into agents of healing and restoration. I want to be a liberationist; not content to call for justice, I want to work to achieve justice - concrete change alongside those who suffer. I want to be a liberationist; to work for the welfare of the most vulnerable as equal to my own.
I laid down evangelicalism so many years ago when it failed to be faithful to what God is calling us to be and do. I am no longer content to be liberal.
I want to be faithful.
I want to be a liberationist.