I face a question and a challenge as I grope my way into activism. The question: What do I do when the river that swept me into the life of Christ now empties into a toxic swamp? The very word, "evangelical," which once conjured images of joyful Jesus Freaks, conveys political intimidation. It's as if Ayn Rand's spirit descended and screeched on Pentecost: "Be selfish and shrill!" But then comes the challenge: Why am I so late? Why did I hide behind the term, "peacemaker," and avoid the loving confrontation so necessary for true shalom? Why did I wait until I was personally hurt?
The challenge humbles me as I offer this confessional testimonial: I'm joining the growing movement to bring evangelicals back to their true heritage, which includes compassion for the poor and environmental care -- and I'm adding my personal caveat: "Don't be like me. Don't wait. Act now."
I became a "born again" Christian in the summer of 1973 just before turning 17. My heroes included Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa. Both were liberal. Both were pro-life. Almost all my friends saw that politics dwells in the gray area of a necessarily secular society. We could agree to disagree between Bible studies.
But then Falwell stormed in -- along with Robertson and Dobson. There was legitimate concern over abortion, and then there was the Republican Party's lip-service to that single issue. Jim Wallace, Ronald Sider and Tony Campolo kept banging their drums for a holistic Gospel -- along with professors in the movement's academies -- but their voices were buried. As for me, I busily worshipped my budding journalism career.
I repented of my idolization and landed at an evangelical seminary in 1985. Strangely, the school shielded me from the swamp's stench. Falwell was not popular among my professors. Sider and Wallace were welcomed. So no worries: the Right Wing tide was receding. The shield held even while I served several embattled New England churches. The divisions never involved politics and I was chasing training on conflict resolution, much of it from Ken Sande's Peacemaker Ministries. Sande is an attorney and a good man and there's much to learn -- but, despite his disclaimers, his approach is borrowed from Alternative Resolution and sees conflict itself is the culprit: controversy foments conflict and is, therefore, wrong.
Suddenly, splat: I slopped into the swamp while pastoring a suburban church. One woman blasted me for my political "liberalism" after I said the Earth is "heating up." I was controversial -- and controversy foments conflict and I was, therefore, wrong. More "liberalism" accusations came after I saw semi-racist e-mails during the 2008 elections. I called for civility, which brought controversy, which meant conflict, which meant I was wrong. And then I complimented Obama's temperament after the election. Obama-sympathy equaled liberalism and liberalism equaled heresy and I was a liberal and, therefore, I was suspect -- and I was controversial, which brought conflict, which meant I was wrong. Church lore soon had me preaching an election-year political series in which I endorsed Obama outright.
I needed tips from Jesus on how to halt my controversial ways, so I began reading Mark's Gospel. Shock of shocks: He deliberately sparked strife. Jesus! You'll get me fired!
I closed the book at chapter three.
But it was too late.I had lost the church. I resigned to prevent my firing -- and immediately plunged deeper into the toxic swill: A political opinion was given as a "prophetic word" at a church I visited. This was a respectable church, filled with respectable families with respectable children and respectable dogs and cats -- and they nodded like a brainwashed cult. More mire as I sifted articles and web sites: Extremists questioned the orthodoxy of leaders who signed a petition, "Climate Change, An Evangelical Call to Action." Surely we can explore this dilemma without fear -- especially since no historic creed is at stake and Scripture advocates creation care.
Apparently not. Tony Perkins co-opted the language of conflict resolution and said worries over climate change are part of a leftist agenda threatening evangelical unity. In 2007, Falwell urged all "to refuse to be duped by these 'earthism' worshippers.'"
This was disingenuous manipulation, accusation, and scare tactics: we're divisive if we disagree with Perkins; we're pagans if we disagree with Falwell. Meanwhile, overwhelming evidence shows the Earth is heating up. How can "pro-lifers" blind themselves to the looming cataclysm? This must stop! I must speak!
But the controversy, the conflict... I'll be wrong. Right ...?
The prison door swung open in a 10-day workshop on conflict transformation, as opposed to mere resolution. Dan Buttry, an international peacemaker, showed us how Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Serbia's Otpor movement raised consciousness through non-violence. Peaceful conflict nurtures societal transformation. Legitimate conflict resolution is a chapter in transformation's volume: Sande waits in the wings until Gandhi has done his work.
A weight lifts. I feel the breeze. I can embrace Mark's Gospel!
I began blogging and I joined my town's Green Committee. I even marched at our local Occupy site. I refuse to allow the Religious Right to hog our name even while I refuse to ignore how I fed the swamp through my acquiescence. I'm crawling in my infant activism, embarrassed that I'm a baby at 55.
No matter. It's time to drain the swamp and rid ourselves of this poison. It was never time to wait. It was always time to act -- and I'm acting now.