I agree, I dislike them too: those internet headlines whose primary purpose is to entice the reader to click on them. “Five things every man should know about women.” “You won’t believe what she did next…” “I lost 100 pounds by changing one simple habit.” Etc. etc. But bear with me; I’m quite earnest with the title above.
There are Christians of all types and persuasions, of course. You might think of yourself as a Conservative Christian. Or a Progressive Christian, a Bible-Believing Christian, an Evangelical Christian, a Full-Gospel Christian, a Charismatic Christian, an Orthodox Christian, or whatever other adjective you want to use to describe your particular experience of Christianity. And I won’t argue the sincerity and legitimacy of your claim. You can be a Christian, one who adheres to the Christian religion, while finding your identity in any of the above, and more.
But you can’t follow Christ, interact with your fellow human beings and with your Creator in the manner Jesus did, if you’re not a liberal.
Be careful now. I’m not talking about national politics, about the degree to which governments should be active in promoting social change, or of individuals committed to left-wing policies.* (However, you can be a good Christian and be of that persuasion too, but that’s not my meaning.)
What I mean is this: you cannot truly follow in the spiritual footsteps of Jesus unless you are willing to test the authenticity of the inherited traditions of your faith and life and, when they are found wanting, discarding them in favour of new ways of thinking and living. Jesus did not live with the expressed purpose of destroying the traditions of his society, but at the heart of his message, his life and his teaching, one finds a deep personal openness and freedom, a liberality of spirit. He is consistently and by far the most liberal-minded person in the Gospel narratives.
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
In the north of the Netherlands there is a small village which, a few years ago, drew international media attention. As part of an experiment sponsored by the European Union the village of Makkinga took a radical step: they removed all traffic signs. Down came the advisory signs, the speed limits, the stop signs, the parking indicators, and even the lines in the streets were removed. All that remained were the signs indicating the names of the streets and a sign at the entrance to the village declaring that the town is “verkeersbordvrij” (free of traffic signs).
What thought lies behind this apparent insanity? Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic expert and one of the project’s co-founders put it this way: “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We are losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” In the right context, he believed, allowing drivers a significantly greater degree of liberty in determining their driving habits would also heighten their sense of responsibility for road safety, and increase their consideration for others using the road with them.
The results? A lower average traffic speed compared to when the signs were up, and a dramatic decline in traffic-related incidents. Other, larger towns in Holland and around Europe have since followed suit.
What rules guide the Christian life? When I became an Anglican I went to a parish church with a lovely Victorian-era interior featuring a triptych of faith tenets inscribed behind the altar. In gold script painted on dark wood panelling one could read the Apostle’s Creed in the lefthand panel, the Ten Commandments in the middle, and the Lord’s Prayer to the right. These were deemed by the church builders, presumably, to contain the core statements of the Christian faith.
Jesus, however, like the small town in the Netherlands, seems intent on paring “the rules” down even further, to the bare essentials. In fact, his summary of what is required of us amounts to something more akin to guiding principles than to rules: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself. Beyond that, live your life freely, making of it what you will, creating your own offering back to God, formed of the raw material God gave you to work with in the first place.
As Christians we are given a delightful liberty; it comes with a great responsibility. Sadly, many cannot handle this freedom and find it easier to revert to a list of rules. In itself that’s disappointing, but not a complete loss. There’s some sense of security to be had there, and clarity too.
Still, if you went to the circus and the only tricks the trapeze artists were able to do were a few jumps and flips off their springy safety net – using it like a trampoline – it would be a disappointment, even if it was mildly entertaining. Trapeze artists are meant to be flipping and soaring through the air, high above the safety net. It takes practice and daring, but it can be done.
Go on, it’s time to let go and embrace your liberty.
* Keeping in mind that in some countries “liberal” is a right-wing label. Either way, you get the point that I am not talking about politics.