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Archive for July, 2011

Where Are All the Liberals?
Father Larry

Sometimes lately I find myself wondering where certain things have disappeared. Like, whatever happened to the buzzards that used to constantly circle and glide majestically over Bakersfield and the surrounding countryside – the farms, the desert fields, river and canals? Whatever happened to all the Black-eyed peas that grew there – the kind I helped my mother snap in the cool of the day out on the green lawn. In fact, whatever happened to Bakersfield? It’s just not there anymore. In its place is a huge ugly fungus – like the kind that grows under someone’s big toenail. I wonder about those things. And, I wonder where are all the liberals? There is, of course, my grand daughter, and while she has been a liberal all her life eleven years is a fairly limited amount of experience in that vocation. I guess I mean where are the liberal leaders in political science and religion. I know there are plenty of people vilified as liberals, but that is mainly for the sake of political expediency – its just rhetoric. No. One rarely sees the real thing.

Maybe if I defined my term you will see why this is bothersome to me – not why Bakersfield has disappeared, I can adjust to that one, but the one about the disappearance of liberals. “Liberal” is from the Latin liber meaning “of freedom.” One of the first uses of the word (1375) was in regard to the classical education of a university as the practice of liberal arts; that is, an education that provides a general knowledge that enables the student to think for him or herself – to think rationally. Wasn’t it Einstein who said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them?” Liberals appreciate creativity in general, but especially that creativity which is a way out of societal and spiritual “stuckness.” As early as (1387) the word “liberal” was used to refer to someone who was generous in bestowing gifts. With the Age of Enlightenment in Europe it was defined as “free from narrow prejudice” and “from bigotry.” It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that “liberal” began to be used as a term for various movements around the world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes: “As soon as one examines it, ‘liberalism’, fractures into a variety of types and competing visions.” There, are, however, certain values that are at the heart of liberalism.

Liberals are committed to the building of societies that are free, fair, open, and transparent in how they work. They emphasize our life together as community where people matter more than institutional needs. They tend to emphasize cooperation and the desire to make a contribution to the good of the whole over competiveness, acquisitiveness, or personal success at the expense of others. Alfred Adler called this desire to contribute to the common welfare “social interest”. We can very appropriately refer to it as liberalism. Adler saw the desire to be “better than,” or ”more than” or “superior to” others as a mistaken and neurotic life goal – as the antithesis to the liberal spirit. So why, contrary to Fox, are the Democrats and Obama not liberals? Here is a short list:

1) Real liberals think it nice to care for and to protect the middle class, but their passion extends beyond the middle class to the poorest and most vulnerable among us.Statistics indicate that 43.6 million or 14.3% of American households are in poverty, and that 50.2 million households, including 17.2 million children, are “food insecure” – what a euphemism. Most days Joe works as a “handyman” or does odd jobs, but still lives in the bushes. His legs are rotting off from some sort of a circulatory ailment. He has no medical care. If the President and his party were liberal they would have done something about universal health care when they were in the position to do so, instead of denigrating people of compassion as self-righteous.

2) Our troops are still in Iraq; in fact, U.S. troops are deployed in something like 150 countries. Military spending has almost doubled since 2001. U.S. military expenditures account for 44% of the military spending for the entire world. The U.S. thinks that somehow invading a sovereign nation and killing Osama Ben Laden has achieved justice. One would think all the innocent blood we had already spilled in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been revenge enough. But, the President did get to look “strong,” and his ratings did go up. It has been of interest of late to note that like George Bush, the President insists he “don’t need no stinkin’ approval” from congress to wage war. Maybe Denis Kosanovich is a liberal. Didn’t he propose a Department of Peace?

3)The poorly named Patriot Act, one of the greatest infringements on personal liberty to ever occur in the United States of America has been renewed. And the President was certainly not acting as a liberal when he declined to prosecute those in government responsible for war crimes. Liberals are supposed to believe in the rule of law. Holding people responsible for their crimes against humanity is one way of discouraging them, or those of their ilk, from resuming such practices in the future.

4) The extension of tax breaks to some of the wealthiest people not only in this country but in the world, while others are hungry, homeless and sick, while the infrastructure of the nation continues to deteriorate, and while the planet continues to die day by day can hardly be characterized as liberal

5) From a liberal perspective freedom has to do not only with individual autonomy when applied to the political realm, and to personal salvation when applied religiously, but rather emphasizes the freedom of the community – the freedom to be for others, to be for the healing of our broken and dysfunctional social order. Political conservatives and religious fundamentalists focus almost entirely on individual autonomy. Conservatives are primarily concerned with conserving the wealth and power of the few. This is why we can’t appropriately regulate Wall Street, pass universal health care, stay out of war, care for the poor, or take significant action in regard to the environment.

This list could go on but this should be sufficient to show that a genuine liberal is hard to find.

Jesus was a liberal. This is the simple reality of all four Gospels. I appreciate what the evangelical minister Gary Vance writes in “Common Dreams”:

Jesus was the ultimate liberal progressive revolutionary of history. The conservative religious and social structure that He defied hated and crucified Him. They examined His life and did not like what they saw. He aligned Himself with the poor and the oppressed. He challenged the religious orthodoxy of His day. He advocated pacifism and loving our enemies. He liberated women and minorities from oppression. . . He associated with drunks and other social outcasts. He rebuked the religious right of His day because they embraced the letter of the law instead of the Spirit. He loved sinners and called them to Himself. Jesus was the original Liberal. He was a progressive, and he was judged and hated for it. It was the self-righteous religionists that He rebuked and He called them hypocrites.

It would actually be more correct to say that Jesus is the source of the core values of modern liberalism. As Vance goes on to note in his article: “The primary issues of Christian Liberalism were birthed when Jesus spoke the profoundly prophetic words found in Matthew 25: 31-46. These scriptures reveal God’s heart for the poor, the sick and other neglected people through out history.” But again I ask, “Where, not only among politicians but also people of professed faith, are the liberals?”

That may seem like a rather strange question coming from an Episcopalian. After all, our bishops are notorious for supporting gay and lesbian rights. And a number of pronouncements have been made in support of immigration reform and compassionate care for those who have entered the country without legal documentation. Clergy are urged to participate in anti-racism training. And there are all sorts of programs aimed at feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and sheltering the homeless. Yet, there is really no interest in the systemic causes of hunger, or homelessness, or the healthcare crisis, or the environment and even less desire to advocate for change. When it comes to advocating for peace and nonviolence we are not even in the room; instead, the Episcopal Church celebrates Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and now 911 like holy days on the liturgical calendar. Indeed, the American flag is seen as a Christian symbol.

Not long ago I received, through the church electronic mail system, a tragic message about eight young men, marines, who had been killed in Afghanistan. The message said they had died so I could live in freedom. My inner response, which I now express here, is that these beautiful boys did not die for me or my freedom, that I had, in fact, protested their going, that I had shouted as loud as I could, “Not in my name!” No, I did not ask them to go, but I grieve their deaths – their victimization. Tragically, rather than seeing these boys as the victims of a violent system, the Episcopal Church, like most other denominations, honors them as heroes and patriots. Liberal? I think not.

At the heart of theological liberalism is God – the God who is freedom. Over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures God is seen as the one who liberates the people of Israel from every form of oppression. Saint Paul says to the earliest Christians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Theological liberalism does not mean, as many fundamentalists suppose, not believing anything positive about God or Scripture. Theological liberalism is simply living free from the constraints of both the fundamentalism of easy and simplistic “beliefism,” and the fundamentalism of radical skepticism. To be free of the confining notions of either “overbelief” or “underbelief” is to be a theological liberal. In this sense one may be both progressive and orthodox at the same time – practice what might be called a “liberal orthodoxy.”

Many people think both John Crossan and John Spong liberal, but they are more pedantic than liberal. Although he never quite escaped the fundamentalist factuality of his youth Marcus Borg would be a far better example. Desmund Tutu is certainly a liberal, but he is something of the exception to the rule that proves the point. There are simply not enough Desmund Tutus in our world.

One way a systems process perspective, like Family Systems Therapy, sees group leadership and individual emotional and spiritual health, is in terms of the differentiation between the “solid self” and the “soft self.” The soft self is that part of ourselves we can haggle over, that we can negotiate. The solid self is that part of ourselves we cannot negotiate away. The healthy man or woman is one who knows the difference and responds to the needs and contingencies of our world on the basis of clear and solid inner values without attempting to coerce others to go along. It’s like Luther saying at the critical moment, “Here I stand. God help me, I can do no other.” The point is simply this, people who espouse one or more liberal causes as it suits them are not liberals – they are “hobbyists.” A liberal is someone who seeks to respond to the systemic needs of our world and the issues of our time out of a solid set of liberal values – I would say out of core Christian values.

My son-in-law took me to Five Guys (the hamburger place) not long ago for the first time. It was a most satisfying experience. I had been wondering to where all the really good hamburger places had disappeared. If you know any real liberals, say like Frederick Denison Maurice, I hope you will introduce us. I would like to know more about how to become one. I am not saying, of course, that Maurice disappeared — everyone knows he went straight to heaven on the first of April 1872.

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