Tom Eblen

Life too complex for narrow labels, minds

As divisive political years go, this one would be hard to top.

It was conservatives against liberals, blue states against red states, McCain against Obama, Biden against Palin, and everyone, it seemed, against Bush and Cheney.

As we change presidents next month, the rancor is sure to continue. We can expect more partisan sniping, more finger-pointing and more self-righteousness from both the right and the left. And it's so much easier to dismiss people who disagree with you if you can slap a label on them.

As Christmas approaches, I'm thinking about a controversial leader from the past. His views were radical, and many people disagreed with his methods. He created an incredible amount of political divisiveness.

It made me wonder: Based on what the Bible tells us about Jesus Christ, would people consider him a conservative or a liberal if he were walking among us today?

I put the question to several Christian clergy in Lexington. A couple of them found time to respond.

"I do think that Jesus could not have been described by our constricting labels," said the Rev. Steve Drury, pastor at Trinity Hill United Methodist Church. "I believe he would appear very conservative at one moment and entirely liberal the next.

"I believe he showed his greatest displeasure with those who were at the extremes. Jesus revealed the importance of ultimate truth while at the same time demonstrating the ultimate value of having compassionate love for all people. He was tender with sinners caught in the very act of sin and harsh with self-righteous believers.

"I believe people of his time thought they had him pigeonholed and then he blew their presuppositions away by his actions and statements," Drury said. "The Sadducees (liberal) thought him conservative and the Pharisees (conservatives) thought him to be liberal."

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, a Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ minister who is executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, took a similar view.

"It would be as hard today to put Jesus in some kind of box, or affix a label to him, as it was in his own time," Kemper said.

"The religious and ruling authorities tried every which way from the Sabbath to figure out how to pin him down, with little luck. ... He associated with riffraff and good folks from everyday walks of life. Jesus wanted to conserve the core teachings of his faith that we are called to love God and love our neighbor as our selves (from Leviticus 19), and he wanted to toss out all the superficial pieces of religiosity that impeded someone's relationship with a loving and forgiving God.

"For me, Jesus was a reformer who aimed to transform not merely the religious status quo of his time, but to transform hearts from hopelessness and cynicism to joy and kindness. ... He wasn't the messiah that they expected, and we still want to make him a messiah that suits our own ways of thinking, and who will do for us whatever we ask, rather than the one who wants us to allow God to work with us.

"There are those today who don't want a controversial word to be spoken in their churches. Heaven forbid if someone should get upset. Yet the Jesus who walked among us was so controversial, perhaps precisely because he could not be pigeonholed, that the only solution the religious and secular establishments could see was to hand him over to the Romans for crucifixion. ...

"He asked people to follow him in caring about the least and the lost, those in prison, those without food, and encouraged us all to become less childish and more childlike," Kemper said.

I think Drury and Kemper said it pretty well. The person many of our political warriors now worship couldn't be defined by narrow ideology.

Does it make any sense for the rest of us to be?

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