I consider myself a political leftist. I see both our major political parties as corrupted by moneyed interests to the point that their ability to govern is limited. I also see this as a structural rather than legal issue; we can’t pass laws that will end the influence of large moneyed interests because that is how it has always been. The best politics begins with people doing stuff in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities outside the structures of local administrative apparati.
Unlike some as far to the Left as I am, however, I participate in electoral politics through giving, advocacy, and voting. Understanding the compromised nature of our politics is not an excuse for refusing my responsibility to do the best I can within the limits of our system to ensure the best possible governance. Never a huge fan of elected officials, my enthusiasm is always tempered by a recognition that even the best possible set of elected officials really isn’t that good. All we can do is the best with what we have at hand.
I’m wary of political labels, however. The above description would, for many readers, create in their minds a set of categories for understanding things about me and my life that might well be untrue. Labels are as misleading as they are helpful. For my part, I see them misleading far too many of us. I also see how labels transferred from our politics to other areas create more confusion than clarity.
Labels, self-given and appointed, abound in the United Methodist Church: “Evangelical“, “Centrists“, “Progressive“, none of which actually describe anything substantial about the views of those who use them. Even less meaningful are words tossed about by some to label others: “Conservative”; “Post-Modern”; “Liberal”; these are words that either mean nothing or, as in the case of Liberal Theology, have a meaning that is not reflected in the beliefs of those who are on the receiving end of it. Whether self-identifying or used as epithets, such labeling is little more than name-calling, a way to separate oneself or others from others. Most decidedly, that is not anything we should be practicing as Christians.
Consider me as an example. Politically Left, I am also a confessing Christian. I have described my own theology as boring in its orthodoxy, which I believe it to be. For example, there isn’t one of our United Methodist Articles of Religion I couldn’t affirm. I also subscribe, endorse, and integrate our specifically Wesleyan emphases not only as part of our collective identity; they are our gift to the larger Christian communion. Being orthodox in my theology does not equate me in any way with being traditional, however. The assumption either that it does or that it should is silly. On the contrary, I am a firm believer that, at its heart, orthodox Christian doctrine is the most radical, revolutionary set of ideas humanity has ever created. That our history has not always reflected this reality does not falsify my beliefs; it only shows how sinful we human beings are. Some of the most radical – in its literal meaning: getting to the root of matters – movements in our history flow from our shared understanding of the Christ-event. No weapon is as powerful as love; no institution can stand against the life-giving Holy Spirit.
So what does this make me? Am I, as I say, orthodox? Am I “progressive”? Indeed, am I as some have claimed derisively “post-modern”? None of those words mean much to me. They tell no story about my life, my faith, and certainly aren’t helpful to others in understanding me. I’m a Christian, one of the people called Methodist, part of a group that has a unique and important story to tell. Beyond that, well, if you think I’m some weirdo that’s fine. Don’t confuse being radical with being unorthodox; don’t confuse being radical with being Progressive, either. To be a Christian is to be radical. If you don’t understand that, you’re doing it wrong.
One of the most helpful things we could do for ourselves is just stop. Stop calling ourselves names. Stop calling others names. Remember our identity is not a word, but the Word. Be far more concerned with how we get it wrong than how others seem to get it wrong in our eyes. I realize this is probably an impossible plea: too many people have way too much invested in labels to consider ditching their use. If no one asks, however, how can we know if it’s even possible to set them aside?